NEW ORLEANS—The United States is comprised of such a diversity of cultures. Recently, a new museum moved to downtown New Orleans, that tell the story of the southern Jewish experience.
The first Jewish individual to arrive in the United States was Joachim Gans; who arrived in 1585, Roanoake Virgina. Visitors of the museum are first greeted with an orientation film full of contemporary Jewish voices from across the lower half to the country. The first exhibition covers the colonial era of the United States and beyond.
Kenneth Hoffman is the museum’s Executive Director and says, “what is the southern Jewish experience? Is it different than the experience of others? In order to survive, many had to change some of your traditions or customs.”
Hoffman, says that after 1881, Jewish peoples were persecuted when the Czar of Russia was assassinated. Many would migrate to the United States and practice Judaism in Masonic lodges or in their own houses, until the city populations grew big enough for synagogues to be built.
Many arrived in the larger northern cities and contributed greatly to the culture. However, Hoffman says, “plenty of people came directly to the South. A lot of Southern Jews can trace their family back to the Port of New Orleans, Charleston, Savannah, Mobile or Galveston. Galveston at one point, was called the Ellis Island of the South.
Immigration continued on into the 1900’s, where recent migrants were encountering a population that had been established for generations. By the 1940’s, the Holocaust had consumed Europe, but all was not well back in the United States. Over the years, American Jews were under the fire of racism. Synagogues in Jackson, Meridian and Atlanta were bombed and individuals were lynched.
Ernst Borinski was a Holocaust refugee. He had a hard time finding a teaching position with widespread antisemitism in the Southern United States. He was eventually hired by the historically Black, Tougaloo College, in Mississippi.
“This isn’t the only story like this. There were over 50 Holocaust refugees, who were hired by Historically Black Colleges and Universities,” says Anna Tucker, the Museum Curator. Tucker’s favorite part of the museum is a large display of a photograph of Borinski with his students gathered all around him, showing how two different groups of people sometimes found likeness in their persecutions desires for full American citizenship.
The heart of the museum boasts a gallery about Judaism. Hung above are stained glass representation of windows from synagogues across the country.
One of the last exhibits in the museum allows visitors to digitally create quilt squares, that are added to a giant interactive quilt. Every day, the visitors change and so does the quilt. The quilt’s inspiration is a quilt from the 1880’s that was sewn by Jewish women.
Kenneth Hoffman says the museum offers a fuller picture of culture saying, “I would like folks to expand on their concept of what it means to be a Southerner, Jewish and ultimately what it means to be an American. This is an American story.”
The Museum of the Southern Jewish Experience opens May 27th. To purchase tickets, click here.