By JOANN LOVIGLIO
PHILADELPHIA — After 34 years in cramped quarters but with big dreams, a new museum opening in the heart of the city's historic district aims to tell for the first time the complete story of the Jewish experience in America.
Plans to expand the National Museum of American Jewish History were a decade in the making. A grand opening weekend kicked off with a Friday night gala featuring Bette Midler and Jerry Seinfeld, and a Sunday dedication will feature Vice President Joe Biden as keynote speaker.
A series of special access days for museum members and funders are scheduled over the next two weeks before it opens to the general public on Friday, Nov. 26.
The 100,000-square-foot, five-story museum's mission is to explore 350 years of Jewish life in the U.S., and highlights themes of freedom, civil rights, prejudice and assimilation.
"We have in this country many Holocaust museums and memorials, so that chapter is one that we've told appropriately quite completely," museum president Michael Rosenzweig said. "The chapter that we tell in this museum, however, is one that hasn't been as well told."
The striking terra-cotta and glass building is located steps from the National Constitution Center, Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell. The $150 million facility replaces a small brick building a block away that had a scant 40 objects on display when it opened for the city's 1976 Bicentennial celebrations.
On the first floor, an "Only in America" gallery uses video, audio testimonials and personal belongings to examine the contributions of 18 Jewish Americans — chosen by a public vote — including Estee Lauder, Jonas Salk, Sandy Koufax and Steven Spielberg.
The second, third and fourth floors use films, interactive displays and artifacts to trace the history of the Jewish experience from the arrival of the first Jews to North America in 1654 to the present, while the top floor will host rotating exhibitions and events.
A central atrium fills the space with natural light; below ground level are classrooms and a 200-seat auditorium for films, concerts and theater.
Those involved in the project wanted to make the museum a place where all Americans can see the similarities between their own family histories and the Jewish experience. Like all immigrant groups, Jews changed American society just as America changed Jewish culture.
"It has meaning for everybody, whether you've just come to this country last week or whether you have been here as early as the Dutch inhabited New York," said architect James Polskek.