By STEVEN WENICK
It was high noon when the sudden pealing of an unseen bell silenced the capacity crowd. A thousand and one glistening white chairs, ordered in military manner, hosted the throng that had come to Independence Mall to witness the opening ceremonies of the National Museum of American Jewish History.
Overhead the mid-morning sun peeled back the gauzy clouds that vainly clung to the sky. It was a perfect setting for a perfect day. Suddenly the unmistakable sound of 50 shofars pierced the quiet transforming the murmuring crowd into a hushed congregation. And that Tikeya Gedola, that solitary elongated blast, seemed to have awakened the spirit in every soul.
On that day a throng of dignitaries and supporters gathered on America’s most historic square mile eagerly anticipating the long awaited opening ceremonies of the NMJAH. Philadelphia, the birthplace of liberty, was a fitting locale to recognize the struggles, contributions and successes of Jewish Americans from colonial times to the present day.
Michael Nutter, the mayor of the City of Brotherly Love, addressed the gathering first, followed by Pennsylvania’s Governor Ed Rendell and finally the keynote speaker, Vice President Joe Biden. They each brought personal insights into the significance of the museum and its chosen location. Their common theme was that the Jewish experience in America was representative of the experience had by all ethnic groups coming to these shores for freedom, opportunity, or safe haven from oppression.
As the dedication drew to a close Rabbi Irving Yitz Greenberg affixed a mezuzah to the doorpost of the museum as is done in the homes of Jews all over the world. The crowd sang Irving Berlin’s “G-d Bless America” and then slowly dispersed and was absorbed into the landscape of tourists and curiosity seekers gathered around the perimeter of the mall. Although the formal ceremonies had concluded, I was slated for a major surprise later that day.
After a hasty lunch at Hamifgash, a kosher restaurant nearby, my wife Bobbie and I returned to the museum for special preview of the museum which will not be officially open to the public until November 26. The museum was awesome and interesting and more than worth the wait of over 10 years in the making. However, imagine my shock when I passed by a display of the Second Level entitled, New Faces New Voices, and saw my sister Sondra’s confirmation photo mounted on the same wall as such notable Jews as, Elie Wiesel, Judith Rudnick, Barbra Streisand, Barbara Walters, Henry Kissinger, et al.
I yanked my camera from its case and began shooting photos of the display and my sister. Imagine—my sister’s photo on display along with a host of Jewish American icons. It struck me that the photo might not be of her but of someone who looked like her. But the name posted on the photo said “Sondra Wenick.” It was my sister.
What I took away from that most eventful day is that each one of us is a part of the Jewish American experience. And although we may not have our picture mounted on a wall and we may not have done anything to make history, nevertheless we are all a part of that remarkable history.