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Michael Rosenzweig

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Seeing Freedom Through Immigrants' Eyes: The National Museum of American Jewish History

Posted: 10/23/10 06:14 PM ET

"The New Colossus," Emma Lazarus's poem inscribed on the Statue of Liberty, reminds us in its most famous line ("Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free") that America has always been a beacon of freedom for those seeking a better life. So as we celebrate the richness and diversity immigrants have brought to our great nation, it's important to remember the hardships many overcame as part of their journey.

Our great-great-grandparents' generation saw rioters burn down Roman Catholic St. Augustine Church in Philadelphia. Sadly, that incident is one of many reflecting our country's occasional ill treatment of religious minorities and immigrants. Even before there was a United States, there was an anti-immigrant impulse. New Amsterdam's (now New York) Governor Peter Stuyvesant persecuted Quaker colonists and warned his superiors that giving Jews liberty would mean "we cannot refuse the Lutherans and the Papists." And, while Chinese and other immigrant laborers built the railways that crossed the continent and facilitated easier trade and travel, Congress reacted to fears that Chinese workers were responsible for unemployment and declining wages by approving the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, restricting Chinese people from coming to America.

These are among the many compelling stories told at the new National Museum of American Jewish History. While specific to the Jewish experience, our stories also teach universal lessons, inspiring an appreciation for the strong parallels in the experiences of all who have come to our country and made it their home.

As a child of an immigrant who came to this country after surviving the Holocaust, this topic is a very personal one for me. It's for that reason and more that I am so passionate about preserving the stories of Jews in America that will be told at the Museum. However, as a nation of immigrants, it is crucial for all Americans to learn about the challenges that so many immigrant ethnic groups faced upon landing on our shores.

When Jews first immigrated here in the 1600s and 1700s, settling in port cities like Savannah, Charleston, Newport, Philadelphia and New York, they brought traditions that they merged with American culture. Some found it challenging to balance their religious customs with those of mainstream society, which led eventually to the birth of Reform Judaism in the 1800s. Later the Conservative movement emerged, in part as a reaction by some traditional Jews to the perceived liberal excesses of the Reform movement, and still later came Reconstructionist Judaism. While most Jews embraced one of the major denominations -- Orthodox, Conservative, Reform or Reconstructionist -- some rejected these labels, preferring terms like non-denominational or "just Jewish." Regardless of their commitment, American Jews enjoyed the freedom of religious diversity.

While the Museum will connect Jews more closely with their heritage, it will also give all visitors a greater appreciation of the diversity of the American experience and the freedoms to which all Americans aspire -- freedoms that have made it possible for American Jews and other immigrants to flourish. In many cases, these immigrants, their children and their grandchildren have bettered not only our society, but the entire world. Consider for a moment how different our country and our world would be without the accomplishments of the likes of Albert Einstein, Irving Berlin, Louis Brandeis and Leonard Bernstein. One of our exhibits showcases the obstacles and opportunities that these and other extraordinary American Jews encountered on the road to remarkable achievement. A similar list could be made up of the achievements of other immigrant groups, be they German, Irish, Italians or Asian. Celebrating these triumphs reminds us of a hallmark of the American experience: an unparalleled opportunity to aspire, achieve and, possibly, change the world.

Freedom is often thought of as an abstract concept, but it's also important to see it as something tangible. We can do this by looking through the eyes and the legacies of those who've come before us. As parents, we tell our children that with hard work, they can accomplish anything regardless of their race, creed or gender. What better way to drive this lesson home than to show them what prior generations have accomplished here despite great adversity -- and in the process, perhaps learn something new ourselves.