During my recent trip to Philadelphia, I visited the National Museum of American Jewish History. The museum sits on the eastern side of the Independence National Historical Park, which contains The Liberty Bell, Independence Hall, and the National Constitution Center. In front of the Jewish museum, facing west toward Independence Park, is an amazing statue dedicated on the 100th anniversary of US Independence by B’nai B’rith to celebrate the religious liberty this country provided.
Inside the museum I learned all sorts of fun facts about the Jewish experience in America:
- The first practicing Jew in North America was Joachim Gaunse, who arrived in 1585, but stayed only one year.
- North America’s first permanent Jewish settlers arrived in New Amsterdam (now New York) in the summer of 1654. One man, Jacob Barsimon, arrived first on the Peereboom, and 23 men, women, and children arrived a few weeks later on the Sint Catrina.
- In 1790, when the US population was 3.9 million, there were 2,500 Jews in the US.
- In 1880, the US population was 50 million, and 250,000 were Jews.
- In 1890, Ray Frank, a Jewish woman born in San Francisco, led High Holiday services in Spokane, Washington, and was referred to as the “Girl Rabbi of the Golden West.”
But the moment that stopped me in my tracks was a moment that I hadn’t expected. I was, after all, in Philadelphia, learning about the founding of the country in which I have lived my entire life, and learning about the Jewish experience in and around that founding. But, on the floor of the museum illustrating Jewish life in the US in the 1900’s, I rounded a corner to a video of David Ben-Gurion declaring the independence of the state of Israel in 1948…
and suddenly, it was as if one of my feet was in standing in the birthplace of American Independence and my other foot was standing in the birthplace of Israeli Independence… Independence Hall in Tel Aviv… which I visited in 2007…
I love moments like these, when my present and past collide in ways that make each of the experiences more meaningful than either would have been alone!!
If you’ve had an experience like this, feel free to share in the comments. 🙂
shavua tov, jen