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Potpourri of People Set to Guide at Museum

November 5, 2009 By:
Fredda Sacharow, JE Feature
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Docents-in-training (from left) Alicia Askenase, Rebecca Caplan and David Forsted examine a hand-drawn sketch of a section of the exhibition being created for the new museum.

Howard Reed owns a small piece of American-Jewish history.

Family lore has it that his maternal grandmother, Rebecca Steiner, was the first woman to graduate from Philadelphia College of Pharmacy -- itself the first such institution in North America -- circa 1900.

Now Reed, a retired postal clerk, is writing his own chapter in his people's history as the National Museum of American Jewish History launches a formal docent-training program, the first of its kind in the facility's 33 years of existence.

"I like Colonial Philadelphia, I like history, and I want to learn more about the Jews in America," said the Elkins Park resident, explaining his decision to enlist as the museum gets ready to open its new building next November.

"I like the idea of learning and teaching at the same time," added Reed, who also serves as a guide on the battleship New Jersey, docked on the Camden side of the Delaware River, when he's not leading children from Virginia, Washington and New York on private tours of Philadelphia's historical sites.

Like Reed, all 60 members of the docent class of 2010 will bring their personal brand of tradition to their responsibilities as the public face of the museum.

Ranging from their 20s to their 70s, the students represent multiple faith communities and ethnicities, hail from as far away as Israel and Brazil, and as close as Center City, and speak, collectively, 12 languages.

They are doctors, educators, caterers and lawyers, scientists, artists and business owners, both retired and active. They are Jews, non-Jews ... and seekers.

Count among the latter Alicia Daly Askenase of Moorestown, N.J., the Catholic-born wife of a Jewish man and the mother of two grown children the couple raised as Jews.

An educator and poet who has taught English as a second language in Philadelphia, Spain, Puerto Rico and New York -- where her students included Russian Jews -- Askenase said that the workshops and interaction with other volunteers have made her more acutely aware of Judaism's rich heritage.

Other than attending services and encouraging her children through their Bar and Bat Mitzvah lessons, she had no formal training in the religion before the classes began on Oct. 13.

"I am far from making the decision [to convert], but starting the docent program coincided with other spiritual changes in my life," said the Connecticut native, who stumbled upon the ad seeking trainees while combing the Web site of the Philadelphia Cultural Alliance for a job.

"The classes have given me a deeper feeling for Judaism," she said. "For the first time, I understand on a deeper level why Jews believe it's important for Jews to marry other Jews."

The type of diversity Reed and Askenase represent fit the museum's bill as it carefully crafted its first docent class.

"We were looking for committed, intelligent, articulate, passionate and active people," people who reflect the mix in age, education and ethnicity of museum-goers themselves, said education director Robert Levin.

Qualifying for program was as rigorous as the course work the students would engage in. The process included not only a lengthy online questionnaire, but also telephone and in-person interviews.

More than 100 hopefuls submitted applications, said Levin; the forms continue to stream in.

The yearlong curriculum for the future museum ambassadors marries U.S. Jewish history with hands-on skills they will need to deal with an expected influx of visitors to the five-story building rising across Market Street from the existing facility.

The newly minted guides are required to make a minimum commitment of eight hours a month, leading tours and introducing visitors to permanent holdings and special exhibits.

Weekly Tuesday classes began with a sweeping overview of the American-Jewish experience. Josh Perelman, museum historian and deputy director of programming, who previously taught at New York University and the University of Pennsylvania, swiftly guided the participants through the nation's earliest years.

A recent session found the students immersed in colonial history, learning of a band of Jews from Recife, Brazil, who came to the New World in 1654 -- not the first Jews to land on these shores, but certainly the largest Jewish group to settle in North America until then.

"Those 23 didn't exactly meet open arms when they arrived here," Perelman said dryly, noting that Peter Stuyvesant, colonial governor of what was then New Amsterdam, termed the Jews "hateful enemies and blasphemers of the name of Christ."

The scholar went on to discuss how Jewish settlers of subsequent generations shaped and were shaped by their new surroundings, how many of them flourished not in spite of their religion, but because of it.

Among those taking notes that soggy Tuesday afternoon was Temple University senior Rebecca Caplan, at 22 one of the youngest docents-in-training.

Unlike many of her fellow participants, the Upper Dublin resident had never visited the museum before last summer, when she chaperoned youngsters from a gymnastics class on a bus tour around the city.

Hooked After a Google Search

Caplan said that she was fascinated when the group passed the construction site for the new building at Fifth and Market streets. Googling the facility later, she came across an ad for the docent class and was hooked.

"This is a great learning experience, both in giving me a broader sense of American-Jewish history and in showing us the inner workings of a museum," said Caplan, a Jewish-studies major who believes the docent program offers a way not only to continue her education, but to scope out career options.

David Forsted spent 35 years as a radiologist before retiring in July from Main Line Health -- "and that is the genesis of my being here," he said with a grin.

The Wynnewood resident pledged that when he left the work world, he would "do something" for his mind, for his body and for his community.

The docent training satisfies two out of three of those criteria, said Forsted, 63, who described himself as a history buff and passionate teacher.

"I had a general knowledge of Jewish history when I came here. Filling in the blanks will be part of the fun," he said.

An Air Force veteran and former chief of staff in charge of 1,300 doctors, Forsted expects that his communications skills will serve him well when he stands before groups of museum visitors come next November.

Over the next several months, the future docents will explore American-Jewish life through the lenses of visiting scholars and rabbis, while continuing to hone their interpersonal skills and curatorial knowledge.

While preparing the syllabus, Levin and Perelman reached out to their colleagues in the museum field, whether Jewish or secular.

Among those whose input they solicited were experts from the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the U.S. Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles and Philadelphia's Rosenbach Museum and Library.

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