By DEAN M. SHAPIRO, Special to the CCJN
The Museum of the Southern Jewish Experience, founded in 1986 at the Union for Reform Judaism’s Henry S. Jacobs Camp in Utica, Mississippi and recently shuttered, will reopen within two years in larger, more centrally located quarters in New Orleans, it was announced last week.
The museum will be located on the edge of the Warehouse Arts District at 818 Howard Avenue with a projected opening slated for some time in 2019. Its prime location is within a few blocks of several other museums, including the National World War II Museum, the Civil War Museum and the Ogden Museum of Southern Art.
In a presentation during Shabbat services at Temple Sinai on July 28, Corporate Realty director Russell “Rusty” Palmer and the museum’s incoming director, Kenneth Hoffman, made the official announcement. Officiating Rabbi Emeritus Edward Paul Cohn introduced the two principals.
The move, it is hoped, will enable the museum to expand beyond the limited space it had at the Jacobs Camp and will also allow it to be visited by many more visitors than was possible in a rural, off-the-beaten-track town with less than 1,000 people. In addition to its sizable Jewish population, New Orleans is a popular travel destination drawing as many as 10 million visitors a year. A significant uptick in attendance is confidently expected when the new facility opens its doors.
The Museum of the Southern Jewish Experience included artifacts, vintage photographs, Jewish family histories, religious objects and other memorabilia from 13 Southern states ranging from Virginia to Texas and Oklahoma. The inventory from the shuttered location in Utica will be eventually shipped to New Orleans and reassembled in the museum’s new home and new acquisitions are expected to add to the collection’s holdings.
As described in its mission statement, the museum’s objective is “to tell the unique stories of Jews who immigrated to the South, established deep roots and acculturated to a new way of life, while never relinquishing their Jewish heritage.”
Hoffman, who has been the director of education for the National World War II Museum since 1998, officially assumes his new position on Monday, August 14. Born and raised in Baton Rouge, he has lived in New Orleans since 1984 and he and his wife and two young daughters are members of the Touro Synagogue congregation. He is also a board member in the local chapter of the Anti-Defamation League.
Expounding on the museum’s mission, Hoffman suggested that its official title should probably pluralize the word “Experience.” As he explained, “There isn’t just one ‘experience.’ Everyone has their own experiences. A German immigrant coming over in 1848 is going to have a different experience than a Russian immigrant coming over in 1903. And a boy in the ‘70s growing up and going to Jacobs Camp – like I did – is also going to have a different experience.
“And I think that’s part of the beauty of the story is that it’s not one experience,” Hoffman continued. “It’s a lot of experiences and I think visitors to the museum, whether they’re Southern, whether they’re Jewish or not, will see some of themselves and see that everyone has their own experiences. Even when you’re in the minority you have the ability to contribute to your community in unique ways; in ways that make that community better.”
Hoffman said that the museum will occupy the ground floor of the building at 818 Howard and half of the second story. He noted that, after inspection of the current museum’s inventory and assessments are made of the needs of the new museum, appeals will go out regarding what other types of materials are being sought for the collection’s expansion.
One major historical event that took place in the South – the case of Leo Frank – is expected to be highlighted in some manner in the new facility, Hoffman said. A pencil factory superintendent in Atlanta in 1915, Frank was convicted on flimsy evidence of the rape and murder of one of his 13 year old employees. He was later dragged from his jail cell and lynched. His death sparked outrage among the American Jewish community and it resulted in the formation of the Anti-Defamation League.
“Certainly the Leo Frank story is one that has to be told here,” Hoffman said.
Hoffman was emphatic in noting that the museum is not limited to just one denomination of Judaism, nor is it limited to just Jews. Toward that end, he created a survey on the museum’s home page, asking people for their opinions on what they would like the museum to include and “what kinds of things would [they] like to learn about?” But, most importantly, he emphasized that he is looking for a broad demographic cross-section among the respondents.
“I don’t want just Jews to take the survey,” Hoffman said. “I want non-Jews to take it too because this museum is not only there for Southern Jews. It’s there for everybody. And we want and need for everybody to come and we want to hear their voices as we are making this museum happen.”
(More updates on the museum and its progress toward completion will be posted in the Crescent City Jewish News as those details are made available.)