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The Whole Spiel

Local Heritage Tourism as a Tool for Jewish Engagement 

April 6, 2020

The Jewish world has been stunned by the successes of international heritage programs, like MoL and Birthright, in strengthening Jewish identity. The principles of these programs’ successes, however, like inspiring place-based rootedness and a sense of belonging to Jewish history, have yet to be embraced at the local level. Across America, the landscape of Jewish programming is rich with opportunities to camp, farm, and volunteer in Jewish ways. But if heritage tourism has thrived internationally, has time not come for it to demonstrate its strengths locally? 

In Poland, Jewish tourists visit synagogues and historic sites and meet members of local communities. Through these immersive experiences, they are moved to reexamine their own relationships to Jewish peoplehood and to reconceptualize themselves as links in a long and meaningful chain. Similarly, Birthright has reinvigorated a sense of Jewish belonging for a generation of American Jews. According to a recent study by the Cohen Center, trip goers are significantly more likely to marry Jewish and to raise their children Jewish. The achievements of both of these programs point to one truth: encounters with shared history are an extremely potent tool for strengthening Jewish life. 

Gladys Berman in front of her father’s tailor and cleaning store at 309 G Street NW, CJM Collections

This idea holds true not only in the shtetl but in our own backyards. Many cities possess the wealth of aging storefronts to evoke the feelings of Jewish rootedness that arise in Jerusalem. One group rising to this challenge is the Capital Jewish Museum, whose tours of historic downtown Washington, once a bustling turn-of-the-century immigrant marketplace, are designed for day schools and Jewish agencies. Through photographs and old buildings, participants reimagine the neighborhood before high rises. The tour also draws participants into the central tensions of Jewish history: assimilation, division, and solidarity all shape the stories being told. Listeners learn about the animosities between early 1900s bourgeois Germans and their Yiddish-speaking coreligionists, or about the synagogues that split along the fault lines of tradition. In turning to these currents of history, participants fit their own selves into the Jewish American tale. In encountering how wartime economic booms grew Jewish communal resources, or how desegregated federal agencies gave opportunities to women, their own journeys come into focus. This process is one of untold value, as it has the power to bring about the sensations of Jewish meaning that have made international programs so successful.

Group of children on bench in front of 723 3rd Street NW, CJM Collections

In addition to the magic it works on strengthening Jewish identity, heritage tourism is an ideal form of Jewish engagement for other reasons: Jewish history, unlike religious ritual, is an accessible entry point for those with little Jewish background knowledge, while still remaining relevant to even the most engaged Jews. Similarly, heritage tourism has the ability to excite both adults and children. (Take, for example, locating the Stars of David on the facade of the Greater New Hope Baptist Church built in 1897 to house Washington Hebrew Congregation!)

Considering all of these strengths, it seems time for local heritage tourism to take a more meaningful role in the push for Jewish engagement, and for organizations like the Capital Jewish Museum to lead the way.