The Museum of the Southern Jewish Experience Explores 300 Years of Jewish Cultural Heritage in the American South

The Museum of the Southern Jewish Experience

On May 27th, The Museum of the Southern Jewish Experience opened at 818 Howard Avenue in a 9,000 square foot space. Exhibits will explore the many ways Jews in the American South influenced and were influenced by the distinct cultural heritage of their communities, covering more than 13 states and 300 years of history.

I spoke with Kenneth Hoffman, Executive Director of the Museum, who explained that The Museum of the Southern Jewish Experience got its original start in 1986 in Utica, Mississippi at the Henry S. Jacobs Camp for Jewish children. The project was the vision of Mary B. Hart. The camp became a place where sacred items such as menorahs, Torahs, and more were kept after small-town Temples closed. In 2012 the camp was closed; the plan was for the Museum to be moved, so that it would be more accessible to the general public. 

The Museum of the Southern Jewish Experience

“New Orleans was chosen for its vibrant museum scene and large Jewish population,” Hoffman explained. “The presence of Tulane was a deciding factor, as well. In fact, the museum has had 10 interns from Tulane help with the opening of the museum.”

The exhibits tell the history of the Jewish experience in the South. Stories about Jews who fought in the Civil War, on both sides, and how they established themselves as they became entwined in Southern towns.

According to the Museum’s press release, “the Southern Jewish experience occupies a unique placement in American culture. The Museum highlights the exceptional bonds of friendship that developed between Jews and gentiles in the South. Backed by the 4000 artifacts in its growing permanent collection, the Museum uses multi-media and interactive exhibits to trace the many ways Jews contributed to the cultural, political, and economic landscape of the American South, often working side-by-side with their non-Jewish neighbors to establish some of the first towns in the region.”

“Over time the Jewish people took on the Southern lifestyle,” Hoffman said. “They lived with other cultures, while retaining their own traditions. They integrated into communities and these different groups of people influenced each other.”

Hoffman said that many people are sometimes surprised at the strong Jewish influences in the South. 

“Southern towns electing Jewish mayors dates back to as early as the 19th century,” he said. “For example, Donaldsonville, [Louisiana] has elected five Jewish mayors.”  

The Museum of the Southern Jewish Experience

Exhibits at the Museum cover three centuries of history, beginning in the 1700s South. Highlights include a map of immigration waves, including the early 1900s immigration to America via Galveston, also known as “the Ellis Island of the South.” Another interesting piece is a community quilt that dates back to the 1800s made by the Jewish Ladies’ Sewing Circle in Canton, Mississippi.   

Also included is 50 replicas of stained-glass windows from Southern synagogues, Judaism’s sacred texts, symbols and sounds will be seen and heard. Exhibits also address the influence of the South on Jewish cuisine and how Southern and soul food influenced Jewish food. Recipes, photos and advertisements show how Jews balanced the marriage of Jewish and Southern traditions.

The Museum also has important exhibitions that touch on Civil Rights and the work of Southern Jewish activists throughout the twentieth century. Permanent exhibits highlight notable figures in the Southern Jewish experience as well as a photography exhibition by Bill Aron, who documented Jewish life in the American South in the 1980s and 1990s

According to Hoffman, one of the purposes of the Museum is to highlight “what the South and America can be.”

“It’s an example of the American story,” he said.

The Museum of the Southern Jewish Experience

The Museum is open every week Wednesday through Monday from 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. (closed certain national and Jewish holidays). Tickets and memberships can be purchased at or on-site. 

Admission: $15 (adults 18-64), $13 (seniors 65 and over, students and active military), $10 (children 6- 17), $13 (group rate: 8 or more). Children under 6 and Museum members gain free admission. 

A gala celebration to officially commemorate the Museum’s opening is planned for early October.

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