Inside the new New Orleans museum telling the stories of Southern Jews

Often excluded from the narrative of American Jewish life, Southern Jews finally get their due in a museum designed to welcome visitors of all faiths

When Jewish immigrants first arrived in the U.S. from Europe, their first stop was Ellis Island — or at least that’s how the narrative goes. But for many, their first sighting of American shores was Galveston, Tex., a port city that welcomed thousands of Jewish immigrants who would settle across the American South. In cities and towns from Dallas to Vicksburg, Miss., to Charleston, S.C., Jews created community and became part of the fabric of this complicated region.

Now, a new museum in New Orleans wants to teach locals and tourists alike the story of America’s Southern Jews, a story that does not always make it into the collective memory of American Jews in big cities like New York or Los Angeles.  

The Museum of the Southern Jewish Experience (MSJE), which opens on Thursday, had originally planned to open its doors last October but was delayed due to the coronavirus pandemic. The opening is now timed to coincide with Memorial Day weekend, though a larger grand opening celebration is set to take place this fall. 

“We want to expand people’s understanding of the South,” Hoffman explained. “People think of the South in terms of black and white, racially, and that’s understandable. It’s correct. That is the blanket that covers all of Southern history and really all of American history, the racial issues. But they’re not the only stories.”

On an exclusive tour previewing the museum last week, executive director Kenneth Hoffman told Jewish Insider that the institution aims to fight a common misperception: that people “didn’t know there were Jews in the South.” The notion mostly comes from “Jews who aren’t from the South, because for them, the center of their universe is their own community, New York or Cherry Hill, N.J., or whatever,” said Hoffman, who grew up in Baton Rouge, La. “When people think about immigration, they think about Ellis Island. When people think about Jewish communities, maybe they’re thinking about Brooklyn.” 

The new museum makes the case that understanding the experiences of Southern Jews is essential to understanding the broader story of American Jews — essential, even, to truly understanding the history of the United States, a country of immigrants.

“We want to expand people’s understanding of the South,” Hoffman explained. “People think of the South in terms of black and white, racially, and that’s understandable. It’s correct. That is the blanket that covers all of Southern history and really all of American history, the racial issues. But they’re not the only stories.”

The museum is on the edge of New Orleans’s central business district, down the street from the city’s acclaimed World War II Museum and less than a mile from the French Quarter. Visitors enter through a small storefront across the street from the streetcar line. “We’ve got a very small footprint,” Hoffman noted. The museum’s three permanent exhibitions are on the first floor, with a temporary exhibition space on the second floor. The top three floors of the building house apartments. 

MSJE’s arrival in New Orleans is a long time coming. The museum itself dates back to the mid-1980s, when it started as an exhibit at the Henry S. Jacobs Camp, a Union for Reform Judaism Jewish sleepaway camp outside of Jackson, Miss. The early MSJE began as “a repository for all the small-town congregations that were disappearing,” said Hoffman. People from small towns across the South who had attended Jacobs Camp would ask Macy Hart, the camp’s then-director, “‘I’m the last Jew, we’re selling the building to the Baptist church. What do I do with the Torahs?’” Hoffman, who interned at the museum when it was at the summer camp, recalled. “Macy said, ‘Bring them here. We’ll keep them.’” 

Kenneth Hoffman, executive director of the Museum of the Southern Jewish Experience (Credit: Julia Mattis)

The museum was not able to attract many visitors, even as its collection grew. “That’s why they closed it and decided to move it to where it could be an accessible museum — not just to the summer campers and their parents dropping them off and picking them up,” Hoffman explained. Any other would-be visitors had to call the camp’s office in Jackson to make an appointment to go to the camp, in Utica, Miss. When they arrived, a staff member would need to greet them to open the gates.

So the museum’s board of trustees decided to relocate it, and after a search process scoured locations across the South, they settled on New Orleans, home to a vibrant Jewish community of about 10,000 as well as a bustling tourism economy. 

Hoffman, who had attended Jacobs Camp as a child and wrote his master’s thesis on the shrinking Jewish community of Port Gibson, Miss., was tapped to serve as its director after spending nearly two decades as director of education at the World War II Museum. It’s his first full-time gig at a Jewish museum: “After I graduated, all my museum work was not with Jewish museums or in Jewish organizations,” he said. “I did meet my wife teaching Sunday school, though.”

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The museum’s first exhibit aims to “set people in place [and] in time,” said Hoffman. Panels provide information about when Jewish immigrants arrived in the South, along with spotlights on a handful of notable Southern Jews from the 18th and 19th centuries. “It’s not everything that happened in Southern Jewish history, obviously, but it shows some touch points where Jewish history intersects with American history and with Southern history,” noted Hoffman.

Though based in New Orleans, the museum’s focus is much wider, and it includes artifacts and history from 13 states. When Jewish immigrants came to the South, many of them became merchants, opening dry goods stores and peddling goods in pushcarts that they brought to farms. In some places, they were serving cotton farmers; in others, like Kentucky, they served coal miners; in Texas, they served cattle ranchers. “When you pull back, there’s a lot of similarities in those kinds of experiences,” said Hoffman. 

Some Jews settled in larger cities like New Orleans or Atlanta, but many resided in towns with few other Jews. This was part of what made the Southern Jewish experience unique, though small towns certainly existed elsewhere, too. “When you live in New York, or you live in Cleveland, or you live in Baltimore, when there’s a large Jewish population, there is a kosher butcher down the street. There are 17 temples you can go to,” Hoffman explained. “When you live in Greenville, Mississippi, there is one temple you can go to. There is no kosher butcher.”

Museum of the Southern Jewish Experience (Credit: Julia Mattis)

Still, despite their relatively small numbers in many municipalities, Jews were involved in local politics, government and philanthropy, the museum explains. One wall shows a map of the South, with stars of David designating cities that have had Jewish mayors. (One of the first defining historical accounts of Southern Jews is The Provincials, a 1973 book by Durham, N.C., native Eli N. Evans. Evans’s father Emanuel J. “Mutt” Evans was Durham’s first Jewish mayor, serving during the peak of the civil rights era, from 1951 to 1963.)

Many are quite unexpected: Galveston, Texas, which welcomed thousands of Jewish immigrants from Europe when Ellis Island grew too crowded, has had five Jewish mayors. The first two mayors of Dumas, Ark., which today has a population of just 4,600, were Jewish. “Why is it that the first two mayors were Jews? How many Jews were there? A handful. But they were prominent citizens, because they were businessmen,” Hoffman observed. “Once they were comfortable in business, they could join civic organizations,” and eventually they ran for office. 

The museum takes a nuanced approach to racial issues, aiming to highlight Jews’ assimilation into whiteness while also noting instances of antisemitism. “Jews owned slaves in about the same percentage as non-Jewish white Southerners,” said Hoffman. “Jews acclimated to the racial norms of the days they were living in. This is not our finest hour.” One glass display case features Judah P. Benjamin, the first Jewish U.S. senator. After serving in the Senate, he later held a number of cabinet positions in the Confederacy when Louisiana seceded. A $2 Confederate banknote with his image on it was on display. 

Still, Jews also faced antisemitism, including the 1915 lynching of Atlanta business owner Leo Frank, who was wrongly convicted of murder and then killed by a violent mob. “For Jews who have been here for generations, who were feeling comfortable that they had been accepted as Americans, this kind of violence was a real shock,” Hoffman said. “But I always point out to people, that even though this was an extreme form of violence against this Jewish man, the same year that Leo Frank was lynched in Georgia, 20 African Americans — that we know of — were lynched in Georgia alone. So this was a type of activity of violence that Jews experienced this one time. But it was something that was much more prevalent for African Americans.”

In the first decades of the 20th century, many Jews in the South opposed Zionism and the creation of the Jewish state out of fear that they would appear insufficiently American and disloyal to their communities. “If you’re advocating for a Jewish home, are you Jewish before you’re American?” Hoffman asked. “Up in the Northeast, where your entire community is Jewish, that’s fine, you can feel safe doing that. But when you live in the South, and there aren’t as many Jews around, maybe you don’t feel as safe as that.” When Zionists did meet in the South, they prominently displayed American flags, as a photograph from a Chattanooga Zionist meeting in 1918 showed. 

The museum approaches the Holocaust by examining Southern Jews’ responses to it; Hoffman is quick to note that it is not a Holocaust museum, though as a Jewish museum, it would seem irresponsible to not include the Holocaust at all. 

Museum of the Southern Jewish Experience (Credit: Julia Mattis)
Museum of the Southern Jewish Experience (Credit: Julia Mattis)

One section shows how Jewish newspapers in the South, such as the Jewish Floridian or the Jewish Herald-Voice in Texas, covered Hitler’s regime and policies. Another includes information about a group of several dozen Jewish professors who arrived in the U.S. with impressive credentials from top European universities, but who could not find jobs at most American colleges because of quotas on Jewish faculty and students; instead, they found jobs at historically black colleges in the South, such as Tougaloo College in Mississippi. 

“This is a human story, and it’s an American story. Everybody can find something of themselves in these experiences,” said Hoffman.

Visitors can listen to oral histories from Holocaust survivors from across the South reflecting on acclimating to the U.S. after having survived the Holocaust. “They’re talking about their experience moving to the South and learning to farm or trying to find a job or encountering racial segregation,” said Hoffman, noting that one woman discussed the moral disconnect of having “just come from a place where she was persecuted because of who she was, [then] she comes to the South, and she finds that there’s an entire class of people who are persecuted because of who they are.”

A section on the civil rights movement also addresses the complexities of Jewish racial identity, with some Jews taking the side of segregationists — such as a Jewish department store that allowed police to arrest Black students holding a sit-in — and others fighting for integration, such as one rabbi who invited a Black activist to speak at his synagogue when other venues would not host him. 

The final panel in the historical section is called “Summer Camp Sweethearts,” with photos of couples who met at Jewish camps in the South. At first glance, the wall seems out of place amid the historical narrative, until reading the explanation reveals that camps were actually a crucial part of allowing Southern Jewish life to thrive. “People from smaller towns didn’t have 50 Jewish boys or 50 Jewish girls to date. But at camp in the summer, they could meet other Jewish kids,” said Hoffman. 

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The museum takes care to make its history relevant to a diverse array of visitors, aware that many will not be Jewish. “This is a human story, and it’s an American story. Everybody can find something of themselves in these experiences,” said Hoffman.

Part of making the museum a universally welcoming experience involved creating an exhibition teaching the basics of Judaism. Titled “What is Judaism?”, the exhibit displays a 19th-century Torah from a Southern synagogue, and recreations of stained-glass synagogue windows hang from the ceiling. An interactive, touch-screen module offers games to visitors, including one that teaches about Jewish holidays and another that quizzes visitors on their knowledge of Yiddish. If you get the question wrong, a Yiddish-inflected voice — spoken by a voice actor clearly meant to sound like your bubbe — says, “Go back to yiddishe school!”

Museum of the Southern Jewish Experience (Credit: Julia Mattis)

To source artifacts for the museum, Hoffman and the museum’s curator, Anna Tucker, contacted Jewish federations across the South and the more than 400 synagogues in the 13 states covered by the museum. Some of the artifacts came from archives, while others were donated by individuals. But Hoffman said that writing the script — the text that appears around the museum — was the hardest part. “We’re talking about 13 states and over 350 years of history. You’ve got to pick and choose what you’re going to put up,” he said. 

One important aspect of recent history that the museum wants to convey is that Jews remain in the South, and in large numbers, too; they just might not be in the same places where their parents or grandparents once lived. “Small towns started disappearing because of young people going away to college,” Hoffman said. But that is not something uniquely Jewish: “That’s not just the Jewish story of small towns. It’s been all over the place,” he noted. 

“More often than not, small-town Southern Jews, who left their small towns stayed in the South, but moved to urban areas,” Hoffman said. This is reflected in the museum’s donors, the majority of whom are Jews who still live in cities like Atlanta, Dallas and New Orleans. Other funding has come from Jews in places like New York, though most of them also have Southern roots, too, or perhaps they went to New Orleans’s Tulane University (or their children or grandchildren did). 

But the story of Southern Jewish life does not remain in the past. “There are more Jews in the South today,” said Hoffman, “than there ever have been before.”

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