October 18th, 2010
12:30 AM ET
CNN's Dan Gilgoff filed this report:
Before it could open its doors in Philadelphia next month, the new National Museum of American Jewish History had to resolve a classic Jewish American predicament: how to treat Saturdays, the Jewish Sabbath.
If the museum remained open for the Sabbath - called Shabbat - the institution would be violating Jewish law, which forbids work and financial transactions on that day.
But if the museum closed for Shabbat, it would prevent the institution from carrying out its mission of sharing the story of American Judaism with visitors on what's likely to be the highest traffic day of the week.
It's the kind of quandary that museum president Michael Rosenzweig says is familiar to American Jews, caught between the dictates of Jewish law and American freedoms, along with the temptations and pressures of a mostly gentile nation.
And on Sunday, Rosenzweig said the museum's board had reached a distinctly American resolution on the matter: to stay open on Shabbat but to do its best to avoid financial transactions - including ticket sales.
"We chose to embrace this as a teachable moment that reflects not only the tradition itself but also the tensions that are at the core of the American Jewish experience," Rosenzweig told CNN Sunday night.
"We're a Jewish institution, but we're not a religious institution," Rosenzweig said. "We want to be sensitive to Jewish tradition but we also recognized that a significant number of visitors will be non-Jewish."
Though the museum will open on Saturdays, tickets will be available only online and at sites outside the museum, which are yet to be determined, Rosenzweig said.
He said that the museum's gift shop would be open on Saturdays but that it would only accept credit cards, so that the museum could process the transactions the next day.
The museum will be closed for major Jewish holidays - Yom Kippur, Passover and Rosh Hashanah.
The new museum will be the nation's only one dedicated solely to telling the story of Jews in America, according to press materials for the institution.
Though the museum, a Smithsonian affiliate, opened in 1976, it is moving next month to a new $150 million, 100,000 square foot building on Philadelphia's Independence Mall, a much larger and more central location.
The museum's board of directors appointed a committee to examine the Shabbat issue this summer, with the board adopting its recommendations earlier this month, Rosenzweig said.
"There are some board members who felt we should be closed on Shabbat and on Jewish holidays and some who thought we should never be closed," he said.
Though he said the financial pressure to remain open was one factor in the choice, "the board was determined to make this decision on a principled basis that didn't involve the revenue we would lose if we closed."
Various American Jewish museums treat Shabbat differently. The Jewish Museum in New York is open on Saturday but does not charge admission on that day, while New York's Museum of Jewish Heritage is closed.
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