Memorial Day, when America remembers men and women who died serving our country in the U.S. Military, is this coming Monday. In honor of this, our #SpottedinJewishDC this week goes to the National Museum of American Jewish Military History, located in Dupont Circle. We sat down for an interview with Michael Rugel, the museum’s Program and Content Coordinator to learn more about the museum’s history and what you can find within its walls.
How did the museum come to be?
The museum was founded by the Jewish War Veterans of the U.S.A. The JWV originated in 1896, when a group of Civil War Veteran in New York formed the Hebrew Union Veterans Association. One of the organization’s goals was to disprove the anti-Semitic stereotype that Jews don’t serve in the military. When JWV moved their headquarters to DC, they created the National Shrine to the Jewish War Dead. In 1958, the museum was created by a Congressional Charter as the Jewish War Veterans National Memorial, Inc. In 1984, under the Reagan administration, the museum opened at its current location. George H. W. Bush nailed the mezuzah to the doorpost at the building dedication.
Why do you think it’s important to focus on Jewish, U.S. military members?
It’s important to show that Jews participated in virtually every aspect of American history. In my opinion, the stereotype of the American Jew as intellectual nebbish is still alive today. We want to show that Jewish Americans are very accomplished in a field that some might not expect. When Americans think of Jews in the military, they often immediately think of Israel. People lose sight of how many Jews have contributed to the American military, going back to the colonial era. Over 500,000 served in World War II. These are important stories.
Most of the time, the stories of Jewish service members are the same as service members of any other religion or ethnicity. But there are times when it was very significant that these men and women were Jewish.This includes Jewish brother fighting against brother in the Civil War, Jewish immigrants who left Russia specifically to escape military service – but came to America and volunteered to join the Army, and Jewish American soldiers who liberated concentration camps during WWII.
How long has the museum been at the Dupont Circle location?
Any tips for our readers who may want to visit?
There are three good upcoming opportunities to check us out:
Friday, May 26th – We’re sponsoring a Memorial Day Shabbat service at Sixth and I (not at the museum). A representative will read the names of those killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Sunday, June 4th – During the Dupont-Kalorama Museums Consortium Walk Weekend, we’ll be open from 11 am – 4 pm, along with 4 other museums in the neighborhoods: Anderson House, Dumbarton House, The Phillips Collection, and the President Woodrow Wilson House. All of us are open free of charge, with special programming. We’ll have a genealogy expert on hand to answer questions.
Sunday, July 16th – At 1:00 pm, we’re having a talk on Jews and Baseball. Phil Wood is the host of Nats Talk Live and a long-time radio personality in the D.C.-Baltimore area. He’ll join us to discuss the history of Jews in baseball including Hank Greenberg and others who served in the military.
What do you think the most interesting things to see are in the museum?
That’s hard because there are so many, but I’ll list them!
- A trepanning kit used by a Civil War surgeon to cut into skull and bone.
- A WWII POW diary kept by Louis T. Wigdortz while a prisoner at Stalag Luft III. It prompts the question of what it was like to be a Jewish prisoner of the Nazis.
- A listening station with a first-hand account of liberating concentration camps. Many of the American Jewish soldiers were Yiddish speakers and the only ones who could communicate with the Holocaust survivors.
- Fallen Heroes – a touchscreen display listing the identified American Jews killed in the Afghanistan and Iraq wars.
- A portable ark and altar created by Chaplain Martin Weitz to honor the “swords into plowshares” theme. The ark and altar used artillery shells and other elements of war to create the ark. He used it to lead Jewish services in the Pacific
- Hall of Heroes – Features the 17 identified Jewish recipients of the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest military honor, dating from the Civil War to Vietnam.
The museum is open Monday – Friday, 9 am – 5 pm. Memorial Day (5/29) hours are 1pm – 5pm. The museum is open Sundays by appointment for groups of 6 or more, and the museum also hosts Sunday and weeknight programs on a regular basis.
Spot something particularly Jewish in DC? Let us know about it by emailing or snapping a photo and posting it on social with #SpottedinJewishDC. You may see it here!