In October, they began. This time next year, they will have finished. In between, it’s a big commitment to become a docent. It takes a lot of knowledge and plenty of spare time.
The first class of docents for the greatly expanded National Museum of American Jewish History, which will open in Philadelphia next year, may see themselves as receiving a great gift from the museum: discussions with scholars, lectures with theologians and museum professionals about the American-Jewish experience. In the end, though, this is two-way giving.
The men and women who will make the museum feel like home to visitors are all volunteers. Many of them, wedded to the idea of a museum that celebrates the American Jewish experience, say they don’t feel as if theirs is charity work. They also say that they’re grateful to be accepted into the program and, by extension, the museum.
Their tzedakah takes a form that may not be considered traditional, yet is anything but peripheral. They give energy, time and talent.
“This is really the country that has given Jews an opportunity to succeed or fail on their own merits,” said a future docent, Michael Lipschutz, a retired Purdue University chemistry professor who received several awards from NASA for his work. “I think we’ve made some pretty good contributions to the country and the world, and I’d like that story to be known.”
Asked whether his commitment to the museum is an act of giving, Lipschutz, 72, paused a moment to consider. “It’s not the way I’d normally think of a contribution, but it is,” he said.
Nearly 70 student docents, including a few from the current, much smaller museum, are knuckling down. They are putting in two and a half hours of class time a week for a year, and studying at home — everything from the history of Jews in the United States to books about immigration. They are learning about Jews who went on to break American barriers or fight on battlefields, or who established businesses. Jews who, like most of the prospective docents, grew into a national culture they continue to help define.
And after the studying is finished (if studying ever really is), they’ll lead visitors through the new exhibits. That’s another commitment — a minimum of eight hours a month in the museum, located in Center City Philadelphia, a block from its current small site, in a new 100,000-square-foot, five-story home on Independence Mall, directly across from the Liberty Bell.
The docents will be introducing visitors to a museum altogether different from the current version, which opened in 1976 and shares a space with venerable Congregation Mikveh Israel, itself a part of American Jewish history. A greatly expanded, newly conceived permanent exhibition will transform the institution, which owns about 20,000 objects covering Jewish life in America over more than 300 years.
When the call went out for docents to guide visitors through the exhibits, about 170 applications flooded in. “On the one hand, it was really an overwhelming number, and it speaks to how compelling the project is to many people,” said Michael Rosenzweig, president and CEO of the museum. “On the other hand, we’ve known for some time that there’s been great interest.”
Gwen Goodman, the museum’s executive director emeritus, developed the docent program with her staff and is overseeing it. “A successful docent program in museums requires a lot of time on the volunteers’ part,” she said, adding that the museum based its training on several programs at other museums. “These are the people the public normally interfaces with, the everyday volunteer.”
The first group of docents skews toward upper age; many are retired. Many also have advanced degrees, and the group includes immigrants, people holding down full-time jobs and three non-Jews. The current museum brings in about 40,000 visitors a year, and museum officials estimate that about one-third are not Jewish.
“The opportunity to learn new things, to study with other adults — the study is very exciting — and meeting people of like minds, this is a stimulating experience intellectually for us as a group,” said prospective docent Nancy Messinger, 65. She recently retired as chief director of educational resources of the Auerbach Central Agency for Jewish Education, which promotes Jewish learning by providing support and programming.
Messinger said, responding to a question, that because being a docent is volunteer work, “it is a form of tzedakah, of giving back to the community and sharing my experience in a different way. I think the intangible satisfaction of giving of yourself is very special and appealing to the people who decided to do this.”
For Rosangela Gomes, 40, a native Brazilian who was raised Roman Catholic and is completing a conversion to Judaism, joining the docent class “is bigger than charity. It’s rewarding, and the museum is giving us a lot.”
She came to the United States in 1997 to study English and was the nanny for a Jewish family — the first Jews she ever met. Gomes went on to Rutgers University, became an accountant and also became more interested in Judaism. “I always dreamed about working at a museum, and I was in the process of conversion,” she said. “It all came together.”
Last spring, G.J. Melendez-Torres, a student in health policy and statistics at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School who is also pursuing a nursing degree, got an internship at the museum. He then applied to be a docent, which involved even more study, something the 20-year-old, who is not Jewish, anticipated and even welcomed.
“I don’t think I ever thought of it from the perspective of charity,” said Melendez-Torres, who is a Quaker and of Puerto Rican ancestry. “This is part of being a force for change. Being part of the effort not only opens new frontiers for learning, it also opens up an important intercultural discussion.”
Howard Shapiro is a theater critic for the Philadelphia Inquirer and also writes about travel.