Guiding through 350 years of Jewish history

In­side the 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 Fair­mount res­id­ent, is a do­cent at the new Na­tion­al Mu­seum of Amer­ic­an Jew­ish His­tory on In­de­pend­ence Mall East, which opened this past Novem­ber. 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, titled “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 al­lowed them to stay — but 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 one of 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 and more are covered in the core ex­hib­it. And Got­tlieb touched on many high­lights dur­ing her guided tour.

Af­ter­wards, vis­it­ors gave en­thu­si­ast­ic praise to her tour.

“Fab­ulous! A won­der­ful ex­hib­it,” en­thused 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,” said Anne Lee Wein­er of Delray Beach, Flor­ida, who 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,” she said.

Tours are offered daily and are free to the pub­lic (after they pay 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’s led a tour of doc­tors from Ein­stein Hos­pit­al, from Camp­bell’s Soup Com­pany, from area syn­agogues and from the Wil­li­am Way Gay and Les­bi­an Cen­ter.

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 on the Re­volu­tion­ary and 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 the Lower East Side, “many people tell me they’ve had grand­par­ents who worked in that in­dustry,” she said.

Like oth­er do­cents, Got­tlieb went through an ex­tens­ive train­ing be­fore giv­ing her first tour in Janu­ary. She be­came in­ter­ested in do­ing this 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 the do­cent train­ees took tours so they could see how oth­er do­cents con­duc­ted tours.

There was also “home­work” for each 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.

Fi­nally, the do­cents who com­pleted the train­ing were ready to give tours to the pub­lic. Got­tlieb gave her first tour in Janu­ary. “It was very ex­cit­ing,” she said. “People were look­ing at everything and seemed very in­ter­ested.”

She’s been en­joy­ing her role as a do­cent 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 Frank & Mar­shall Col­lege and then at­ten­ded Dickin­son Law School. After gradu­at­ing, 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 were still very in­ter­ested in learn­ing,” said Got­tlieb. They split in­to two groups de­pend­ing on where they live: one group meets twice a month on the Main Line, and oth­er meets in Cen­ter City.

“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.”

Got­tlieb still looks for­ward to every tour.  “I en­joy in­ter­act­ing with the vis­it­ors,” she said. “Hear­ing about their own ex­per­i­ences, see­ing how in­ter­ested they are, makes each tour very re­ward­ing.”••

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