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Beginning with the first Jews to permanently settle in America, Foundations of Freedom depicts how a tiny minority sought, defended, and tested freedom—in political affairs, in relations with Christian neighbors, and in their own understanding of what it meant to be Jewish. It explores issues that are at once historical and familiar: creating new communities, intermarriage, integration, preserving faith, and maintaining rituals in the absence of Jewish institutions and services. This floor introduces the lively tug-of-war between religious innovation and continuity, and raises questions about what it meant to be a small minority in a young and still-evolving nation. The floor ends on the eve of the great migration from Eastern Europe that began in the late 1800s, a point at which the Jewish community had gained a measure of security and acceptance, but was about to undergo a tremendous transformation.
Dreams of Freedom chronicles the migration of millions of immigrants who came to the United States beginning in the late 19th century and profoundly reshaped the American Jewish community and the nation as a whole. The first section of this floor considers immigration and integration: getting to America, making a home, the reception immigrant Jews received, and learning to navigate American society. The second section takes up life after Congress legislated the end of free and open immigration in 1924. Through the lenses of the fine and performing arts, political activism, and religious expression, it explores how Jews defined what it meant to be an American Jew during an insecure period of American and world history. The final section of Dreams of Freedom delves into how American Jews experienced World War II.
The Museum’s second floor begins in the immediate postwar period with stories of migration, from war-torn Europe, the Middle East, the Caribbean, and the Soviet Union. Likewise, between 1945 and 1965, about a third of all American Jews left large urban centers and established themselves in new suburban communities. For Jews and non-Jews alike, a suburban home became a sign of success, prestige, and security—a “Shangri-La” for the middle class. Artifacts and films illustrate what the creation of the State of Israel meant to American Jews, why they moved to the suburbs and new urban frontiers, and their role in the fight for civil rights. Choices and Challenges also highlights leisure activities like vacationing and summer camping. The floor ends in the present day, offering you a chance to share your personal views in two high-tech, interactive experiences: Contemporary Issues Forum and It’s Your Story.
Through the lives of real people—some well known, others less so—the Only in America® Gallery/Hall of Fame weaves compelling stories from the past and present with the larger themes of the Museum’s core exhibition. The extraordinary individuals featured in Only in America® illustrate that a hallmark of the American Jewish experience has been an unparalleled opportunity to aspire, achieve, and possibly change the world. Only in America® is an innovative combination of multimedia, original artifacts, and interactive experiences.