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Guiding through 350 years of Jewish history

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Inside the Museum of American Jewish History, Laurie Gottlieb stood in front of an unusual display — a full-scale covered wagon.

She explained to a group of visitors that this wagon represented an actual journey that a pioneering Jewish family took westward. The gallery space devoted to this event gives many specifics of their life on this long journey.

Gottlieb, a Fairmount resident, is a docent at the new National Museum of American Jewish History on Independence Mall East, which opened this past November. On a recent afternoon, she was giving a tour of the core exhibition.

This extensive exhibition on four floors covers the entire sweep of American Jewish history, from colonial times to the present. It goes in chronological order starting on the fourth floor, titled “Foundations of Freedom,” which covers the period from 1654 to 1880.

That’s where Gottlieb’s tour began. “In 1654, twenty-three Jews — men, women and children — got on a boat and sailed from Recife, Brazil, to New Amsterdam,” said Gottlieb. “But Peter Stuyvesant did not welcome them. Instead, he asked permission to expel them.”

As Gottlieb explained, the Dutch West India Company allowed them to stay — but with restrictions — because they had talents that could benefit New Amsterdam.

That was the start of the eventful history of Jews in America.

Guiding the visitors, Gottlieb pointed out artifacts, photos, and documents that illustrated key moments and experiences during this time frame. She did the same for the exhibits on the lower levels.

Of course, there was no way for Gottlieb to show all of the museum’s 25,000 artifacts. Instead, she chose items that highlighted the major events and experiences. As she guided her group to selected displays, she kept up a lively commentary laced with facts, anecdotes and background information.

It was, in effect, a whirlwind tour through more than 350 eventful years of American Jewish history starting with the earliest Jewish communities in colonial America (Philadelphia was one of the five earliest ones) Themes of immigration, assimilation, Jewish participation in all the wars, Jewish contributions to American culture, anti-Semitism, the founding of Israel, Judaism in the suburbs — all these and more are covered in the core exhibit. And Gottlieb touched on many highlights during her guided tour.

Afterwards, visitors gave enthusiastic praise to her tour.

“Fabulous! A wonderful exhibit,” enthused Eileen Marx of New York. “And the docent was excellent.”

“It was extremely well put together, enlightening, educational — and the docent did a great job,” said Anne Lee Weiner of Delray Beach, Florida, who was so impressed that she decided to stay in Philadelphia an extra day. “I want to return to this museum so I can see even more,” she said.

Tours are offered daily and are free to the public (after they pay the museum’s admission charge) Drop-in tours are usually given twice a day, no reservations needed. But space is limited, so visitors sign up at the admissions desk. Docents also give private tours for varied groups, and these are scheduled in advance.

On her drop-in tours, Gottlieb has met people from all over the U.S. and abroad. Her group tours are varied, too: she’s led a tour of doctors from Einstein Hospital, from Campbell’s Soup Company, from area synagogues and from the William Way Gay and Lesbian Center.

On group tours, she often tailors her presentation to the particular group. On the tour with doctors from Einstein, she pointed out the role of Jewish doctors on the Revolutionary and Civil War. The museum even has the uniform of one Jewish doctor on display.

She especially enjoys having visitors relate personal anecdotes relevant to something on the tour. For instance, when she gets to the exhibit devoted to the garment industry on the Lower East Side, “many people tell me they’ve had grandparents who worked in that industry,” she said.

Like other docents, Gottlieb went through an extensive training before giving her first tour in January. She became interested in doing this as soon as she saw an online announcement for potential docents. It was well before the museum opened.

“One of my favorite activities is going to museums,” said Gottlieb. “I thought this would be perfect for me, combining my interests in museums and in Jewish history.”

The screening process for docent trainees involved a written application, a resume, and then a personal interview.

Then came the actual training, with weekly sessions that continued for 18 months. They included lectures by scholars in Jewish history, and occasional visits to other museums, including the Rosenbach and the Constitution Center. Here the docent trainees took tours so they could see how other docents conducted tours.

There was also “homework” for each session — assigned readings on relevant topics. “There was lots of new information and it was a very good foundation,” said Gottlieb.

Later in the training, the docents split into groups and each person was assigned to explain one artifact to the others in the group.

The next step was giving a practice tour: first, to the other docents, and then to staffers from the Jewish Museum.

Finally, the docents who completed the training were ready to give tours to the public. Gottlieb gave her first tour in January. “It was very exciting,” she said. “People were looking at everything and seemed very interested.”

She’s been enjoying her role as a docent ever since. Her interest in Jewish history began when she attended a Hebrew Day School in New York. Later she majored in European Cultural Studies at Frank & Marshall College and then attended Dickinson Law School. After graduating, she practiced law but stopped to devote herself to raising her two sons.

Other docents at the Jewish Museum also come with varying backgrounds. “It’s such an interesting group,” said Gottlieb. “We were strangers when we began, but we’ve developed strong friendships.”

Even after their classes ended, the docents decided to continue meeting on their own. “We were still very interested in learning,” said Gottlieb. They split into two groups depending on where they live: one group meets twice a month on the Main Line, and other meets in Center City.

“We exchange ideas about how we can best present the exhibit, and we keep up to date with news of Jewish interest, “ said Gottlieb. “It’s almost as if we’re in school together. We’re a group of lifelong learners.”

Gottlieb still looks forward to every tour. “I enjoy interacting with the visitors,” she said. “Hearing about their own experiences, seeing how interested they are, makes each tour very rewarding.”••

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