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Jewish museum debates following culture or integration

A rendering of the National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia.

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STEVE CHIOTAKIS: A $150 million museum that highlight's American Jewish history opens its doors this weekend in Philadelphia. But organizers wanted to be true to the religion. So there were discussions about when to open, and how to do business.

Reporter Joel Rose explains.


Joel Rose: On the day I visited, the front desk clerks at the National Museum of American Jewish History were using fake money to test out the registers.

Clerk: So the total for that is $90 for your family membership.

When the museum opens, the clerks will take in real cash -- except on Saturday. According to religious law, Jews aren't supposed to work or handle money on Shabbat. Museum director Michael Rosenzweig says this prompted some heated discussions among the board members.

Michael Rosenzweig: There were some on the board who felt we should close for all Jewish holidays and Shabbat. There were some who felt we should never close.

That tension -- between religious observance and integration -- shows up many times in the museum's exhibits about the history of Jews in America. In the end, Rosenzweig says the board settled on a compromise.

Rosenzweig: We decided to remain open on Saturdays, and on most Jewish holidays. But on those days, we will not engage in commercial transactions on the premises of the museum.

The museum and its gift shop will accept credit cards on Shabbat, but it won't actually process the transactions until the holiday is over. Jewish museums all over the country wrestle with doing business on Saturday. Judy Margles chairs the Council of American Jewish Museums.

Judy Margles: You might miss outreach to the non-Jewish audiences, people who are out on the street on a Saturday. People who don't have a lot of time during the week to visit your museum.

That's a concern for the National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia. Its new building is practically next door to Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell. And Michael Rosenzweig expects Saturdays to account for a quarter of attendance.

Rosenzweig: We are on Independence Mall. Saturday is a huge day on the mall. That would be a very significant sacrifice of revenue.

Rosenzweig says he'd like the museum to be free on Shabbat, like some other Jewish institutions. But he says that will only work if he finds a generous donor to make up the difference.

In Philadelphia, I'm Joel Rose for Marketplace.

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Why not follow reform Jewish customs, which don't worry about the Shabbat rules the way Orthodox Jews do. The vast majority of Jews in the United States are reform, and there's probably a good number of them who consider themselves Jews but never celebrate Shabbat.

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