Inside the National Museum of American Jewish History, Laurie Gottlieb stood in front of an unusual display — a full-scale covered wagon.
She explained to a group of visitors that this wagon represented an actual journey that a pioneering Jewish family took westward. The gallery space devoted to this event gives many specifics of their life on this long journey.
Gottlieb, a Philly native, is a docent at the new National Museum of American Jewish History, which opened last November on Independence Mall East. On a recent afternoon, she was giving a tour of the core exhibition.
This extensive exhibition on four floors covers the entire sweep of American Jewish history, from colonial times to the present. It goes in chronological order, starting on the fourth floor with Foundations of Freedom, which covers the period from 1654 to 1880.
That’s where Gottlieb’s tour began. “In 1654, twenty-three Jews — men, women and children — got on a boat and sailed from Recife, Brazil, to New Amsterdam,” said Gottlieb. “But Peter Stuyvesant did not welcome them. Instead, he asked permission to expel them.”
As Gottlieb explained, the Dutch West India Company, a chartered coalition of Dutch merchants, allowed them to stay — with restrictions — because they had talents that could benefit New Amsterdam.
That was the start of the eventful history of Jews in America.
Guiding the visitors, Gottlieb pointed out artifacts, photos and documents that illustrated key moments and experiences during this time frame. She did the same for the exhibits on the lower levels.
Of course, there was no way for Gottlieb to show all of the museum’s 25,000 artifacts. Instead, she chose items that highlighted the major events and experiences. As she guided her group to selected displays, she kept up a lively commentary laced with facts, anecdotes and background information.
It was, in effect, a whirlwind tour through more than 350 eventful years of American Jewish history, starting with the earliest Jewish communities in colonial America (Philadelphia was among the five earliest ones). Themes of immigration, assimilation, Jewish participation in all the wars, Jewish contributions to American culture, anti-Semitism, the founding of Israel, Judaism in the suburbs — all these topics and more are covered in the core exhibit. And Gottlieb touched on many highlights during her guided tour.
Afterward, visitors gave enthusiastic praise to her tour. “Fabulous! A wonderful exhibit,” said Eileen Marx of New York. “And the docent was excellent.”
“It was extremely well put together, enlightening, educational — and the docent did a great job,” added Anne Lee Weiner, of Delray Beach, Fla.
She was so impressed that she decided to stay in Philadelphia an extra day. “I want to return to this museum so I can see even more,” Weiner said.
Tours are offered daily as part of the museum’s admission charge. Drop-in tours are usually given twice a day, no reservations needed. But space is limited, so visitors sign up at the admissions desk. Docents also give private tours for varied groups, and these are scheduled in advance.
On her drop-in tours, Gottlieb has met people from all over the U.S. and abroad. Her group tours are varied, too; she has led a tour of doctors from Einstein Hospital, employees from the Campbell Soup Co., congregants with area synagogues and staffers from the William Way Gay and Lesbian Center at 13th and Spruce streets.
On group tours, she often tailors her presentation to the particular group. On the tour with doctors from Einstein, she pointed out the role of Jewish doctors during the Revolutionary War and the Civil War. The museum even has the uniform of one Jewish doctor on display.
She especially enjoys having visitors relate personal anecdotes relevant to something on the tour. For instance, when she gets to the exhibit devoted to the garment industry on New York’s Lower East Side, “many people tell me they’ve had grandparents who worked in that industry,” she said.
Like other docents, Gottlieb went through extensive training before giving her first tour in January. She became interested as soon as she saw an online announcement for potential docents. It was well before the museum opened.
“One of my favorite activities is going to museums,” said Gottlieb. “I thought this would be perfect for me, combining my interests in museums and in Jewish history.”
The screening process for docent trainees involved a written application, a resume, and then a personal interview.
Then came the actual training, with weekly sessions that continued for 18 months. They included lectures by scholars in Jewish history and occasional visits to other museums, including the Rosenbach and the Constitution Center here in Philly. During those visits, the trainees took tours so they could see how other docents conducted their sessions.
There also was “homework” for each weekly training session — assigned readings on relevant topics. “There was lots of new information and it was a very good foundation,” said Gottlieb.
Later in the training, the docents split into groups and each person was assigned to explain one artifact to the others in the group. The next step was giving a practice tour: first, to the other docents, and then to staffers from the Jewish museum.
She’s been enjoying her role as a guide ever since. Her interest in Jewish history began when she attended a Hebrew day school in New York. Later she majored in European cultural studies at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa., and then attended Penn State’s Dickinson Law School. She practiced law but stopped to devote herself to raising her two sons.
Other docents at the Jewish museum also come with varying backgrounds. “It’s such an interesting group,” said Gottlieb. “We were strangers when we began, but we’ve developed strong friendships.”
Even after their classes ended, the docents decided to continue meeting on their own. “We exchange ideas about how we can best present the exhibit, and we keep up to date with news of Jewish interest, “ said Gottlieb. “It’s almost as if we’re in school together. We’re a group of lifelong learners.” ••
Visiting the Jewish museum …
The National Museum of American Jewish History is at 101 Independence Mall East (at Fifth and Market streets). Call 215-923-3811 or visit the Web site at nmajh.org. Open daily except Mondays. Admission: $12, adults; $11 for seniors and young people from 13 to 21; children under 13, free.
Docent-led tours are offered at noon and 12:30 p.m. most days, but space is limited. Visitors must check in for these tours at the admissions desk.