From the moment I confirmed my internship at the National Museum of American Jewish History (NMAJH) back in the spring, until the final weeks of my internship, I have repeated one conversation over and over again upon telling someone the name of the Museum.
Friends respond: “But you’re not Jewish! Why are you working there?”
And strangers respond: “Oh nice, what synagogue did you attend?”
The common theme is that most people have assumed that I must be Jewish to work at the National Museum of American Jewish History, and become confused as to what could have possibly draw me to the Museum since I’m not Jewish. To be honest, my lack of complete knowledge and connection with Jewish culture worried me, too—what if I was out of place at NMAJH?
After a couple months in the Museum, I found that visitors still ask the same question. Even our artist-in-residence, JJ Tizou, had never visited NMAJH before being invited to collaborate, confessing that it never occurred to him to visit the Jewish history Museum since he isn’t Jewish. Our program of 20+ interns at NMAJH is treated to weekly seminars with staff from every department of the Museum and colleague organizations, and every speaker from Education to Development to senior Administration has explained how this same assumption is a constant challenge.
NMAJH, I have found, tells a broad story about immigration and becoming American that anyone whose family migrated to the United States can identify with—a category that applies to the majority of Americans today. And although I know that just sounds like a pitch for the Museum, I assure you it’s not. Every part of this summer has circled back to the central themes of celebrating shared culture and embracing others’ cultures.
When you go to an art museum, you don’t have to think about whether something is telling your story or not. Most of my experiences before this summer have been with art museums, and general history museums that do not narrow down on a particular culture too much (think any Civil War museum or local history museum). The thing about museums I love is the mission of educating everyone about the stories behind the artwork, so when I think back now to my first impressions of NMAJH, I find it hard to understand why I hesitated.
Educating others about American Jewish history is no different than educating about art; and if you do not have to be an artist to go to the Princeton Art Museum, or a New Yorker to go to the 9-11 Museum, you certainly should not see not being Jewish as something to keep you from learning about the rich and varied history of Jewish Americans. In every case, what you find in a museum is a chance to learn about people unlike yourself, and a chance to discover similarities in your own life, no matter the group or museum genre.
I have found that to “fit in” among the Museum community as a visitor, staff member, or Philadelphian does not mean to be Jewish; rather, fitting in at NMAJH means coming with an attitude of openness towards other cultures and towards finding the similarities among our pasts.