Wednesday, June 16th 2021   |

Museum of Southern Jewish Experience set to open on May 27

By DEAN M. SHAPIRO, Special to the CCJN

Nearly four years after making the initial announcement, the long-awaited opening of the Museum of Southern Jewish Experience (MSJE) has been set for Thursday, May 27, in its new location in New Orleans.

Museum of the Southern Jewish Experience executive director Kenneth Hoffman stands in front of the soon to be opened museum. (Photo by Dean M. Shapiro)

The museum, located at 818 Howard Avenue, will open its doors at 11:00 a.m. that day, following a media-only press conference in the facility’s lobby. No special ceremony is being held at this time, but Kenneth Hoffman, the museum’s executive director and ex-officio Board of Directors member, indicated there will be a special event and ribbon-cutting at an unspecified date in October.

Located on the edge of the Warehouse Arts District, just a few blocks from other frequently visited museums, the MSJE confidently expects to draw visitors from the nearby National World War II Museum, the Ogden Museum of Southern Art, NOCHI and other tourist and attractions in the vicinity, Hoffman stated in a recent interview.

The museum also anticipates benefiting from its location off the St. Charles Avenue Streetcar line. It will also be a stop for the Hop-On, Hop-Off tour bus line in addition to being walking distance from the French Quarter and downtown New Orleans, Hoffman added.

One of the permanent exhibits at the Museum of the Southern Jewish Experience. (Photo by Dean M. Shapiro)

The MSJE occupies 9,000 square feet on one-and-a-half floors of a building constructed in 1915, just a block away from Lee Circle. Visitors will enter through the ground floor lobby, pay the admission fee and tour the museum’s three main ground-level galleries and, if they wish, the additional gallery on the second floor. A gift shop will also be on the ground floor.

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.” A sizable number of today’s Jewish families living in the southern United States can trace their roots back to the earliest years of settlement in the 17th and 18th centuries, and their family heirlooms and other artifacts make up a sizable portion of the museum’s approximately 4,000-piece inventory.

A sefer Torah (scroll) and yad (hand pointer) used in reading the scroll in a synagogue. (Photo by Dean M. Shapiro)

Thursday’s official opening completes a move that was long in the planning and execution stages. Formerly located on the grounds of the Henry S. Jacobs Camp in rural Utica, Mississippi from 1986 through 2012, the MSJE shut down there largely due to its lack of wide visibility and a shortage of exhibit space and attendance.

The collection’s inventory was placed in storage in Jackson as the museum’s board scouted possible locations for a new home before voting to relocate in New Orleans. Once the decision was made and a facility was secured, a target date for the opening was set for October 2020, but was then delayed due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

Nonetheless, work on setting up the museum continued despite the adverse situation.

The decision to locate here was, in large part, attributable to the city’s relatively sizable Jewish population, as well as its draw as a tourist destination, attracting as many as 18 million visitors annually.

However, Hoffman was emphatic in noting that the museum is not just intended to attract members of the Jewish faith, nor is it a museum that focuses solely on the New Orleans Jewish community.

Immersive experience screens at MSJE. (Photo by Dean M. Shapiro)

“We’re not here only for Jewish visitors,” Hoffman said. “We’re focused on the experiences of Jews from 13 Southern states ranging from Virginia to Oklahoma. We’ve got a vibrant tourism economy here and we’re very conveniently placed for visitors from out of town as well as locals. We want everyone to come through this museum door.”

Born in Houston and raised in Baton Rouge, Hoffman attended Jacobs Camp as a youngster and later interned at the MSJE when it was located there. He attended Tulane University where he received his Master’s degree in history and went on to work at a succession of museums including the New Orleans Museum of Art, the Louisiana State Museum and the National World War II Museum. He served as the WW II Museum’s director of education for 18 years prior to being hired to his current position at the MSJE.

A New Orleans resident since 1984, Hoffman is a congregant at Touro Synagogue, along with his wife and two daughters.

A peddler’s cart used by early Jewish merchants. (Photo by Dean M. Shapiro)

The Museum’s interior, which houses both permanent and changing exhibit space, has been designed by the world-renowned design firm of Gallagher & Associates. This is the same firm that created the exhibits at the National WWII Museum, the National Archives, the National Museum of American Jewish History, the Kentucky Derby Museum, and many others around the world. The museum’s staff, together with Gallagher personnel and a group of 30 historians, writers and rabbis, teamed up to create “immersive, interactive exhibits designed to educate, engage and entertain,” according to a statement issued by the museum.

One of the most compelling resources in the museum’s offerings is access to the “Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Communities,” an ongoing effort to chronicle the experiences of Southern Jews in towns and cities across the region. Visitors searching for their families’ roots or other key information about the locales where their families’ settled can peruse the pages in one of the galleries or view it online here.

Many towns and cities in the South had Jewish mayors, as indicated by a map among the exhibits.

Museum executive director Kenneth Hoffman shows how an immersive screen responds to the touch. (Photo by Dean M. Shapiro)

A significant artifact on display at the museum is a cash register from the first Stein Mart store in Greenville, Mississippi dating from about 1956. Founded in 1908 by Russian Jewish immigrant Sam Stein, his namesake clothing and accessory store gradually expanded into a regional chain boasting, at its peak, nearly 300 retail outlets throughout the South, Texas and California before ceasing in-store operations in 2020 due to bankruptcy.

Other noteworthy artifacts include a Jewish soldier’s Civil War diary, a steamer trunk used by a Jewish immigrant who entered the U.S. through Galveston, a wedding dress worn at a Jewish wedding in New Orleans in 1895, a prosthetic leg worn by Fred Galanty who owned and managed a successful mercantile store in Lake Providence, LA. in the 1920s, and a bell from the Jewish-owned Gamm Plantation north of Shreveport.

The collection also houses various types of household items from Jewish homes, business records, photographs, letters, religious articles from Southern synagogues and other ephemera.

Hoffman explained that many of the Jews who settled in the South did so because they could own land here, a privilege they were not allowed in some of their native European countries.

“It was a little more adventurous for them to come South than settle in the northern cities where most European Jews emigrated to,” Hoffman said. “Since many of them were not allowed to own land in Europe, they developed merchant skills and artisan skills. That made them a good match for new towns being built throughout the South that needed merchants. And so they formed a large percentage of the merchant class in the South.”

Hoffman also noted that many of the first Jews to come here to the South were Sephardic Jews (from Spain, Portugal and the Mediterranean region) and they had business relations in the Caribbean because their mother countries had colonies there. “And so it was natural for them to form business relations in (the key seaport cities of) New Orleans and Charleston and Savannah,” Hoffman explained.

Anti-Semitism and acts of violence like lynchings directed at Jewish are covered in the displays. (Photo by Dean M. Shapiro)

On a brief tour through the still-unopened facility, Hoffman pointed out a large, blown-up black and white photograph of the governor of Georgia being hanged in effigy after commuting the death sentence of Leo Frank to life imprisonment in 1915. Frank, the superintendent of a pencil factory in Atlanta, was accused – based on flimsy evidence and conflicting testimony – of murdering a 15-year-old girl who was employed by the factory. Convicted and sentenced to death, he was lynched by an angry mob that stormed the prison where he was being held after his sentence was commuted to life imprisonment.

Termed “a touchstone moment in American history” by Hoffman, the virulently anti-Semitic incident resulted in the expansion of the then recently-founded Anti-Defamation League by B’nai B’rith.

The museum’s audio-visual components were produced by Cortina Productions. They include a state-by-state exploration of the museum’s collection and an interactive quilt-making table that allows visitors to design an electronic quilt square representing their identity. These squares are then “sewn” together with other squares, metaphorically representing the concept that everyone can contribute to their community’s strength and diversity.

The museum’s Special Exhibition Gallery will feature exhibitions created by the MSJE, as well as traveling exhibitions on loan from other institutions. These exhibitions will highlight topics and themes that explore diverse experiences within Southern Jewish life. The temporary exhibitions will also provide new opportunities for learning and discovery for both returning and first-time visitors.

Among those who were most instrumental in the museum’s relocation to New Orleans are current MSJE board of directors executive board members. They include Jay Tanenbaum, chair, and vice chairs Morris Mintz and Rusty Palmer and seven other board members including Hoffman as ex-officio. In addition to Hoffman, the museum’s permanent staff includes curator Anna Tucker; director of development Emma Storm Herr and visitor services manager Abbey Lewis.

The Museum of Southern Jewish Experience is open six days a week (closed Tuesdays) from 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. It will be closed on New Year’s Day, Mardi Gras Day, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Thanksgiving Day and December 25.

Admission prices are as follows:

Adults (18-64)  $15

Seniors (65 and over), students (w/ID) and active military $13

Children (6-17) $10

Group rate (10 or more) $13 each

Children under 6 and museum members FREE

For more information about the Museum of Southern Jewish Experience visit their website or their Facebook page.

For guidelines on how to donate items to the museum, click here.

To book tours, volunteer, make donations or to request other information, call 504-384-2480.

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