While most Jewish emigres to the US have wound up in large East Coast cities, the Museum of the Southern Jewish Experience examines the lives of those who transited through predominantly Christian port towns, like New Orleans. Many started prosperous farms in the Mississippi Delta and Appalachian mountains and went on to win elections as mayors, sheriffs, council members, and civic leaders. Through a wide range of exhibits, collections and programs, the museum traces the history of Jews in the American South, exploring the many ways that they’ve influenced – and were influenced by – the region’s distinct cultural heritage.
Some of the artifacts may seem mundane for display in a museum: a steamer trunk, a peddler’s cart, a cash register from a men’s clothing store. But they reflect the little-known 350-year history of Jews in America’s Southern states, which is the focus of the new $5.5 million Museum of the Southern Jewish Experience here. “This all about how Jews came to the South, where they might have experienced a difficult welcome and where they succeeded at building loving relationships with their largely Christian neighbors,” said Jay Tanenbaum, an Atlanta-based investment banker and the chairman of the museum’s board. “It’s about toleration and acceptance.” Kenneth Hoffman, the museum’s executive director, said the Southern immigrants had “very different experiences” from their Northern counterparts. “We’re excited to tell our story to non-Jewish people and to Jews who don’t know Southern Jewish history,” said Mr. Hoffman, a Tulane-trained historian. “Ours is a universal story about how people navigate whatever environment they find themselves in.” Though a small minority, Jews played a key role in the economic development of the South, creating businesses and shops in hundreds of rural towns. Today, many of their descendants have moved to large urban centers like New Orleans and Atlanta, with many involved with the arts, philanthropy and civic life. As newcomers to America, theirs was not the Ellis Island and Lower East Side narrative usually associated with the migration saga. Some came to the South as early as Colonial times and later from Germany, France and Eastern Europe. Instead of working in sweatshops and living in crowded urban ghettos, the newcomers frequently moved to the frontier, supporting themselves as itinerant peddlers. In the loneliness of the rural South, the vendors were welcomed for much needed goods and news. Some settled into hospitable communities and established shops or bought land, something that had often been prohibited in the old country. Often, they would be the only Jews in the region.
A New Orleans museum that opened last month sheds light on surprising aspects of Jewish life in the 13 Southern states since the mid-1700s
An advertisement in North Carolina’s Wilmington Journal in 1847 reveals a stain on local Jewish history. Ansley Davis, who came from Petersburg, Virginia, published the ad under the heading “Negroes Wanted.” The text stated: “I wish to purchase a large number of Negroes of both sexes, from the age of 14 to 30, for which I will pay the highest cash market price.” Davis, whose family owned one of the largest Jewish-run slave-trading companies in the entire South, would tour the region every summer seeking new slaves, which he later sold.
Davis was not the only Southern Jew who made a living in the slave trade prior to the Civil War. David Wise of New Orleans also put up slaves for sale at the time, working out of a depot on the city’s Baronne Street. “Has always on hand a large number of slaves, which will be sold for cash,” according to an ad that he placed in a paper. “A fine lot of young, likely, able-bodied negroes – girls and men – excellent field hands.” By the time the war broke out, New Orleans was the largest slave-trading city in the South.
The stories of Wise and Davis are presented on the website of the Museum of the Southern Jewish Experience, which opened in May in New Orleans. MSJE, as it is called, showcases the culture and heritage of the Jews who lived in the 13 southern states over a period spanning some three centuries: from colonial America through the Civil War, the Civil Rights movement and up to this day. Some 4,000 exhibits have been collected from Jewish communities and families in small towns, before they disappeared from the map.
When Jewish immigrants first arrived in the U.S. from Europe, their first stop was Ellis Island — or at least that’s how the narrative goes. But for many, their first sighting of American shores was Galveston, Tex., a port city that welcomed thousands of Jewish immigrants who would settle across the American South. In cities and towns from Dallas to Vicksburg, Miss., to Charleston, S.C., Jews created community and became part of the fabric of this complicated region.Now, a new museum in New Orleans wants to teach locals and tourists alike the story of America’s Southern Jews, a story that does not always make it into the collective memory of American Jews in big cities like New York or Los Angeles.
The Museum of the Southern Jewish Experience (MSJE), which opens on Thursday, had originally planned to open its doors last October but was delayed due to the coronavirus pandemic. The opening is now timed to coincide with Memorial Day weekend, though a larger grand opening celebration is set to take place this fall.
On an exclusive tour previewing the museum last week, executive director Kenneth Hoffman told Jewish Insider that the institution aims to fight a common misperception: that people “didn’t know there were Jews in the South.” The notion mostly comes from “Jews who aren’t from the South, because for them, the center of their universe is their own community, New York or Cherry Hill, N.J., or whatever,” said Hoffman, who grew up in Baton Rouge, La. “When people think about immigration, they think about Ellis Island. When people think about Jewish communities, maybe they’re thinking about Brooklyn.”
The new museum makes the case that understanding the experiences of Southern Jews is essential to understanding the broader story of American Jews — essential, even, to truly understanding the history of the United States, a country of immigrants.
“We want to expand people’s understanding of the South,” Hoffman explained. “People think of the South in terms of black and white, racially, and that’s understandable. It’s correct. That is the blanket that covers all of Southern history and really all of American history, the racial issues. But they’re not the only stories.”
The museum is on the edge of New Orleans’s central business district, down the street from the city’s acclaimed World War II Museum and less than a mile from the French Quarter. Visitors enter through a small storefront across the street from the streetcar line. “We’ve got a very small footprint,” Hoffman noted. The museum’s three permanent exhibitions are on the first floor, with a temporary exhibition space on the second floor. The top three floors of the building house apartments.
MSJE’s arrival in New Orleans is a long time coming. The museum itself dates back to the mid-1980s, when it started as an exhibit at the Henry S. Jacobs Camp, a Union for Reform Judaism Jewish sleepaway camp outside of Jackson, Miss. The early MSJE began as “a repository for all the small-town congregations that were disappearing,” said Hoffman. People from small towns across the South who had attended Jacobs Camp would ask Macy Hart, the camp’s then-director, “‘I’m the last Jew, we’re selling the building to the Baptist church. What do I do with the Torahs?’” Hoffman, who interned at the museum when it was at the summer camp, recalled. “Macy said, ‘Bring them here. We’ll keep them.’”
NEW ORLEANS (press release) – Earlier this year the Museum of the Southern Jewish Experience (MSJE) announced that it would open in New Orleans in the fall of 2020. Due to construction delays and a drastically slowed tourism economy from the effects of COVID-19, Museum officials have decided to push back plans to open until early 2021.
“We feel this will allow us to give the Museum of the Southern Jewish Experience the robust welcome that we’ve been planning for,” said Jay Tanenbaum, Chairman, MSJE. Tanenbaum also cited the need to give business and tourism time to recover in New Orleans and ensure the safety of all staff and visitors.
Museum staff remains hard at work in conjunction with design and fabrication partners, Gallagher & Associates, and Solomon Group toward completion of its exhibit space at the Museum’s future home, 818 Howard Avenue in New Orleans.
The new museum will explore the many ways Jews in the American South influenced and were influenced by the distinct cultural heritage of their communities, covering 13 states and more than 300 years of history – including Colonial, Civil War, World War II and the Civil Rights Movement.
Curators are still also accepting artifact donations. With many people still at home, now is a good time to cull family archives and to speak with older relatives to collect personal family stories. Visit msje.org/our-collection for more information.
The Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA) picked up our latest news about the Museum’s 4,000-piece collection move from Jackson, MS, to New Orleans, LA. Reporter Josefin Dolsten interviewed our executive director, Kenneth Hoffman, for an article focused on the Museum’s collection, mission, and goals for the future.
MSJE moves its 4,000+ piece artifact collection to New Orleans in preparation of its 2020 opening.
In June 2019, the Museum of the Southern Jewish Experience (MSJE) officially moved our collection to New Orleans from Jackson, MS, where it was under the supervision of its previous caretakers, the Institute of Southern Jewish Life (ISJL).
Founded in 1986, the Museum of the Southern Jewish Experience was established to tell the unique history of Southern Jewish life in America. This mission led to the development of a collection containing 4,000+ artifacts and archival documents, including family photos and letters, Judaica from now-closed synagogues, and artifacts once used in Jewish-owned stores throughout the South. For some families, these objects are the only known remnants of their small-town, Southern Jewish experience, and their careful preservation is essential to maintaining and exploring this meaningful history.
Because of the collection’s size, condition, and importance, the move took several weeks to accomplish and called on the expertise of our Museum staff, the ISJL team, insurance agents, professional movers, and interns. One of the first tasks given to Anna Tucker, our newest Museum staff member, was to coordinate this move from Jackson to New Orleans. Anna has a decade of experience in the museum field and a research background in Southern Jewish history. She began her career as assistant manager of the Museum of History and Holocaust Education, and most recently served as special projects curator at the Kennesaw State University Dept. of Museums, Archives and Rare Books. Moving the collection was the best way to familiarize Anna with our collection, so with just a week under belt, she set off for Jackson to begin preparations.
Preparing for the Move. The MSJE’s collection has been steadily growing since 1986 and includes an array of artifacts. Family heirlooms, 8’ electric store signs, a 19th century wedding dress, and storekeeper Fred Galanty’s prosthetic leg are only a few of the objects found within our holdings. To coordinate the move, Anna began by meeting with ISJL staff members and familiarizing herself with each artifact to develop a detailed plan to securely relocate them to New Orleans.
Finding a New Home. A key step in the process was the selection of an appropriate location close to our Museum’s new location. While we’ll have many artifacts on display in our exhibits when we open in 2020, like most museums we will continue to hold a majority of our collection in off-site storage. And not just any storage–we require climate control, on the second floor or above, and passageways and elevators wide enough to accommodate two synagogue organs, a 12-foot ark, and a surprisingly heavy peddler’s cart.
Packing the Collection. MSJE hired professional movers with decades of experience handling antiques. Even with a team of movers, we needed additional preparation for a collection of this size. Anna traveled to Jackson for a second trip ahead of the moving company, armed with archival supplies to pre-pack some of our more delicate artifacts. This also gave Anna an opportunity to update our inventory and fill out condition reports.
Local carpenters built custom-made crates for select items, including a mid-20th century sign from the Knickerbocker Hotel, a kosher establishment once located in Hot Springs, Arkansas. Altogether, we had a team of six packing the collection in the days leading up to the move.
The Big Move. Once everything was inventoried and securely packed, the collection departed from Jackson to New Orleans. Throughout the move, it was very important to keep our artifacts in a stable environment, protecting them from heat and humidity. Even our moving trucks were climate-controlled!
Once in New Orleans, we began the final stage of the project: unloading and unpacking. We checked off the boxes one by one as movers unloaded them, and we placed each box into a pre-determined location in our off-site storage. Our wonderful Tulane University interns, Rachel and Sam, worked alongside staff to help unpack and organize each box according to its accession number. Even though we’re officially moved into our new home in New Orleans, it will be an ongoing process to care for and document our collection, especially as we acquire new pieces of the Southern Jewish experience in the months and years to come.
Now we begin the fun part of the process: selecting the artifacts that will help our visitors explore the Southern Jewish experience in our exhibits.
What type of artifacts would you like to see? Let us know!
Nationally-recognized Jewish educator Rachel Stern to help craft unique gallery in the Museum’s soaring atriums.
The Museum of the Southern Jewish Experience has contracted Rachel Stern to serve as its Senior Judaic Advisor to provide expertise and guidance in the presentation of Jewish beliefs and practices throughout the Museum’s exhibits.
Rachel Stern holds master’s degrees from Hebrew Union College’s Jewish Institute of Religion in Jewish Education and Jewish Non-Profit Management. She has worked in the Jewish non-profit world for over twenty years serving federations, synagogues, seminaries, and beyond. Rachel most notably served as the first full-time Director of Education for the Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life for over 13 years and recently became the Inaugural Director of the Rapoport Center and the Chief Learning and Engagement Officer for Shalom Austin. Rachel and her husband Scott are parents of four college students, Gabe, Lainey, Maddie, and Charlie.
“I can think of no better person to help us interpret the religious aspects of exhibits,” said Museum Executive Director Kenneth Hoffman. “Rachel has such wonderful experience creating educational curricula that is not only informative, but accessible and engaging.”
“As a Jewish educator I’m always looking for new ways to connect people to Judaism,” said Stern. “I’m thrilled to be part of this project and utilizing the museum as a platform to teach and celebrate Judaism.”
Many of the Museum’s exhibits will be historical in nature, tracing Southern Jewish involvement in local, regional and national events. The Museum is also planning a unique gallery where visitors can explore Judaism—its fundamental beliefs, branches, life cycle events, and holidays—using a rich collection of artifacts that were used by Southern Jews over the past two hundred years. Highlighted items will include a Torah from El Dorado, AR, a seder plate recovered from a Hurricane Katrina-flooded home, tefillin (phylacteries) from Demopolis, AL, a ketubah (marriage certificate) from Portsmouth, VA, and a 19th century chevrah kedusha ledger (burial society) from Vicksburg, MS. Visitors will also be able to learn about Jewish practices and even quiz themselves through an interactive multimedia display.
The gallery will be housed in the Museum’s soaring four-story atrium showered with natural light. The setting will be both beautiful and contemplative. “The purpose of this gallery is not only to display many of our beautiful ceremonial objects,” Hoffman explains, “but to give our many non-Jewish visitors a ‘Judaism 101’ lesson in customs and beliefs.”
Award-winning historian Michael Cohen joins Museum’s efforts to create meaningful, accurate, and engaging exhibits.
The Museum of the Southern Jewish Experience has contracted Dr. Michael Cohen to serve as its Senior Historical Advisor as it researches, designs, and installs its exhibits, ahead of its 2020 opening in downtown New Orleans. Cohen chairs Tulane University’s Department of Jewish Studies, where he holds a Sizeler Professor. He earned his A.B. with honors from Brown University and his Ph.D. from Brandeis University. He is the author of Cotton Capitalists: American Jewish Entrepreneurship in the Reconstruction Era (New York University Press, 2017), The Birth of Conservative Judaism: Solomon Schechter’s Disciples and the Creation of an American Religious Movement (Columbia University Press, 2012), as well as several articles.
Professor Cohen lectures widely throughout the country and across the globe, including cities such as London, Sydney, Cape Town, New York, Tokyo, and Jerusalem. He chairs the Association for Jewish Studies’ Directors Group, where he is also the Division Chair for Modern Jewish History in the Americas. He serves on the Executive Committee of the Academic Council of the American Jewish Historical Society and is an academic advisory board member for the Pearlstine/Lipov Center for Southern Jewish Culture. Professor Cohen is also a board member of the Southern Jewish Historical Society, and he has served as a scholar-in-residence for the American Jewish Archives “Travels in American Jewish History” program.
“We’re delighted to be working with Michael on this exciting project,” said Museum Executive Director Kenneth Hoffman. “Michael has been advising us on a volunteer basis for two years; now he will take a more active role in helping us develop our exhibits. As we strive to tell a complex and often-overlooked story, Michael will guide our historical thinking and serve as our connection to scholars and historians across the country.”
“I am thrilled to formalize my relationship with the Museum of the Southern Jewish Experience,” Cohen said. “Southern Jewish history is an important story that needs to be told, and I am excited to partner with the Museum to share that story.”
The Museum is also working with world-renown exhibit designers Gallagher & Associates, who helped create the exhibits at The National WWII Museum, The National Museum of American Jewish History, and at scores of institutions across the country and around the world. Together with Gallagher and Dr. Cohen, the Museum’s staff and board of directors will create exhibits that give a broad overview of Southern Jewish history in thirteen states, highlight a unique collection of artifacts, and provide opportunities for all visitors—Jewish and non-Jewish alike—to gain an expanded understanding of what it means to be a Southerner, a Jew, and ultimately, an American.
The Museum already has a strong relationship with Tulane University. Board members Jay Tanenbaum and Rusty Palmer, as well as Kenneth Hoffman, are alums, and board member Morris Mintz has a long history of support for the university. The Museum has established an active internship program that provides Tulane students opportunities to gain real-world experience in the museum field. Working with Dr. Cohen further strengthens that relationship.
After months of hard work we’re proud to share the launch of our new website by New Orleans-based Web Developer Sideways Designs! We look forward to adding new areas and functionality to the site in the months ahead. Let us know what you think!