At Congregation Ner Tamid, most members can trace their ancestors back to Eastern Europe and the late 1800s.
Few are aware that 1654 was one of the most significant years in Jewish history -- the year that 23 Jews fled the Portuguese Inquisition when they boarded the St. Charles bound for North America. This tiny group stepped onto the shores of New Amsterdam (New York) with the dream that the budding democracy in the new land would end their history of expulsion from countries around the globe.
Rabbi Jerry Danzig of Congregation Ner Tamid of South Bay (CNT) had a vision of a museum inside the synagogue that would trace the history of Jews in America from 1654 to the present. He, along with his dedicated committee, made that vision a reality in January, when the museum officially opened with a dinner and celebration attended by more than 100 people. From timelines, maps and posters to antique tools, cigar molds and famous original signatures, the exhibit is fascinating, enlightening and inspiring. The displays cover an array of topics that include early immigration, intolerance, trades, humanity and famous Jews in politics, the military, entertainment and sports.
The overriding theme is that Jews had a significant impact on the formation of our young country. Danzig said that it is no accident that Emma Lazarus, a Hebrew scholar and translator, wrote the words inscribed on the Statue of Liberty, nor that the words embossed on the Liberty Bell come from the Torah. For Danzig, the most important parts of the exhibit are those that demonstrate how Jewish individuals, such as Lazarus; Samuel Gompers, the father of America's labor unions, and Jonas Salk, developer of the polio vaccine who refused to profit from it or allow it to be patented, changed the character of America.
"Our museum is a panorama of 350 years of Jewish life in America," Danzig said. "Since the Exodus from Egypt, Jewish life thrives in freedom and the beneficiaries have been the countries in which they resided. We are proud to display the contributions Jews have made over 350 years to the evolution of the American civilization, its politics, literature, science, music, art, education, philosophy. This museum has given our students, as well as many non-Jewish individuals and groups, a new appreciation of our history, contributions and achievements."
The volunteers who worked with Danzig caught his enthusiasm for the project. They raised nearly $10,000 in donations and gathered many of the pictures, artifacts and visuals from CNT members.
"It was the most unique experience," said Ellen November, curator of the exhibit. "Creating the displays and studying all the material and artifacts expanded my depth of knowledge of modern-day Jews and about the history of Jewish immigration. It made me even more aware of how much Jews embody the American spirit."
Danzig has organized numerous events to mark "Celebrate 350." These events encourage participation by the religious school students, the congregation and the community at large. Since the museum opened, docents have led students, church groups and libraries through the exhibit.
On Sunday, Feb. 20, at 7:30 p.m., CNT will host a program on "What Do We Owe Peter Stuyvesant? 350 Years of Jewish Life in America." Professor Mark Dollinger, director of the Jewish studies department at San Francisco State University, will address the issues of Jews and federal politics, social welfare reform and Jewish education and identity.
The public is welcome to take a self-guided tour Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Guided tours can be arranged by calling the synagogu. at (310) 377-6986. The address is 5721 Crestridge Road, Rancho Palos Verdes.