By ALAN SMASON
Kenneth Hoffman, executive director of the Museum of the Southern Jewish Experience, held an unusual news conference on Wednesday on the neutral ground of a busy New Orleans street. The event was intended to announce the opening of their facility in the fall and allowed reporters to face the facade of the building currently under renovation on Howard Avenue.
Joining Hoffman were Arnie Fielkow, CEO and president of the Jewish Federation of New Orleans; Kurt Weigel, president and CEO of the Downtown Development District; Mark Romig, senior vice president and chief marketing officers of New Orleans and Company; and Morris Mintz, vice president of the museum’s board of directors.
The history of the museum dates back to its formative years when it began as an adjunct portion of Henry S. Jacobs Camp in Utica, Mississippi. Through several decades, items of spiritual and historical significance of the Southern Jewish experience throughout the Deep South were collected including photos and religious artifacts.
Former camp director Macy Hart, who headed up the original museum oversaw the project, which rapidly expanded into a major building on the Jacobs campus. Eventually, the museum was made part of the Goldring/ Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life (ISJL), which closed the facility due to its inaccessibility in rural Mississippi.
It was decided that the museum would be relocated to a site that would give it more visibility and access to greater numbers of visitors. New Orleans was chosen as a proper site and the museum was officially separated from teh ISJL to give it ease in its relocation process and to enable it to set up a new board of directors to aid in its installation.
The museum will cover over 300 years of Southern Jewish history and include items from 13 states in its collection, Hoffman said.
“It’s been in many hands and many hearts and we’re in the home stretch,” Hoffman announced to the crowd of reporters and bystanders. “We’re here to get folks excited about it, tell them a little more about it and show them the support that the museum has throughout the New Orleans community.”
Fielkow, a former New Orleans City Councilman, trumpeted the addition of this museum to the burgeoning list of museums located in the downtown area and predicted it would bring in thousands of tourists to New Orleans from all over the South, the country and the world to learn about the Southern Jewish experience. “This is one more asset that’s going to allow us to tell the incredible story of the Jewish contribution both in New Orleans and throughout the South,” he said.
Hoffman called on Romig, also famously known as the “voice of the New Orleans Saints” to weigh in on their take as to what the new museum will be able to add to the rich tourist offerings in the city.
“It’s estimated that the museum will bring in an addition of at least 35,000 people and it’s not just the regular tourists,” Romig remarked. “These are cultural visitors. These are what we call experiential discoverers, people who will enjoy the depth that we can present here in the city of New Orleans.”
Romig said that visitors to museums spend an extra 60% more money on their trips and tend to stay longer in their visits to the city. “They’re coming in to get a deep depth of our city,” he added. Romig predicted the museum will be promoted over the tourism marketing company’s social media, advertising and other resources once it is opened.
Speaking on behalf of the Downtown Development District, where the museum will be located, Weigel noted that the project, which celebrates the important contributions of the Jewish community, is properly located near both Canal Street with its many former department stores headed up by Jewish community leaders as well as its proximity to Dryades Street, another formerly thriving section of the city with tremendous Jewish influence.
“How fitting is is that this project that celebrates the impact of the Jewish experience be one of the keystones in the development of all Downtown,” Weigel stated, acknowledging the key role the Jewish community has played in medicine, in art, in education and in commerce.
Hoffman interjected that this year in the Krewe of Jingle, that the museum would be happy to add some menorahs and latkes –”a little Chanukah” – to the event which celebrates Christmas.
Mintz, whose family has been involved in many activities of the New Orleans Jewish community, was the last to speak. “It’s been a dream come true, not just for me, but for many to share our story of Jews across the whole country, not just here,” he said. Mintz spoke about his grandparents, who immigrated from Russia and met here when they were very young in the early 1920s.
He expressed hope that many Jewish families and other ethnicities will see their families’ stories in the exhibits being shown. “It’s really an American story,” he concluded.
A Klezmer band featuring Mark Rubin and others provided musical entertainment before and after the speakers and bagels were offered to guests.