Docents train hard and proud
On the street below at Fifth and Market, jackhammers were sending out their deafening message. Inside, in the lobby of the new home of the National Museum of American Jewish History, Irving Berlin's personal piano was being jockeyed into place.
On the street below at Fifth and Market, jackhammers were sending out their deafening message.
Inside, in the lobby of the new home of the National Museum of American Jewish History, Irving Berlin's personal piano was being jockeyed into place.
And upstairs on the fourth floor, as mayhem swirled around them, a group of intrepid men and women sidestepped ladders and cables, tuning out the din of construction projects to concentrate on one thing: being the best ambassadors possible to the thousands of visitors expected to arrive when the relocated museum opens to the public on Nov. 26.
On this late-October day, the museum's new docents finally were in the space where they have been preparing to lead tours for more than a year.
Docent training at the striking new building is not taken lightly.
"These are amazingly dedicated people who are willing to sacrifice significant time in their lives for this," says Rob Levin, the museum's education specialist. Levin helped to launch the formal docent interview process back in spring 2009, after notices seeking guides were placed in local synagogue bulletins, at area colleges, and on the Internet, attracting more than 100 applicants.
Each one then underwent an initial phone interview, filled out a lengthy written application, had an in-person interview, and was subject to a reference check.
"By the end of July," Levin says, "we had created a pool of about 60 candidates, to ensure an ongoing core group of 50 docents."
Their backgrounds include science, the arts, business, social work, law, writing, design, catering; they speak a total of 12 languages. "The mix is wonderful," Levin says, also noting that 10 of the pioneer group are men, an unexpected bonus; typically, the museum-docent population tilts strongly toward women.
Each Tuesday afternoon since October 2009, these volunteers have met for several hours to learn the sweep of Jewish American history from 1654 to the present, often hearing from guest lecturers from local universities. And yes, there is homework.
They also have been mastering techniques to present that history vividly and engagingly in just one hour on the guided tours they will lead.
The docents have had plenty of practice, presenting individual objects to one another, personalizing their comments while highlighting as a framework the museum's important holdings, which range from kosher butchers' knives to historic letters, documents, ritual objects, and diaries.
"People can learn facts by reading labels. But a good docent becomes an ambassador for an institution, using facts in creative combination with people skills and host skills. They need to captivate an audience," says Linda Steinberg, who became director of education at the museum in July, bringing with her an extensive museum background with an emphasis on Judaism.
Steinberg recognizes that an hour is a blink when it comes to 25,000 square feet of exhibition space on three floors, with more than a thousand objects and 30 films on display. How that hour is utilized is the key to making visitors want to continue on their own, or return for a deeper immersion.
It's a tall order, as interior designer Adele Fine of Center City now recognizes. "I've been a printmaker, a starving artist, and a designer, but this work has been among the most challenging, and satisfying, things I've ever done."
Fine decided to sign on as a docent to test herself in new ways, and because she was hungry to learn more about American Judaism. "And what I got was a graduate course that I've loved. I've left class every week on a high."
Once most of the artifacts were in place, Fine was among the first to volunteer to actually lead a tour group - fellow docents who rewarded her with a spontaneous burst of applause as the tour ended. She beamed. And exhaled.
Also slated to lead a group that day was retired Purdue University chemistry professor Michael Lipschutz of Philadelphia. An expert on extraterrestrial material, Lipschutz explained why he became involved in docent training.
"I've been trained as a scientist, dealing with tiny parts of the whole, one thread of the tapestry. In leading tours, I'm weaving all the threads together."
He admits it will be a change of pace "to talk to people, not rocks," and is gratified that his long interest in history finally is being utilized.
For Rosangela Gomes, 41, an accountant with a South Jersey firm, becoming a docent at this particular museum represents a remarkable odyssey.
Born into a Catholic family in Brazil, Gomes emigrated to the United States in 1997, and completed a conversion to Judaism in 2009. "I'd been raised in a Catholic family, went to a Catholic university, but I always saw a certain magic in Judaism," she says.
"When I decided to do this, I was pretty alone. I have no family here. So this group has 'adopted' me - I was invited to eight Passover seders last spring by other docents."
She acknowledges that until her year of extensive immersion in Judaism through American history, it was, in her words, "a real mystery."
"Now," she says, "I really, truly feel Jewish."
When Lory Engel, 67, of Moorestown retired from teaching elementary-school students in Mount Laurel in 2008, she wasn't sure how she'd spend her time. Then a friend told her about the museum's docent opportunities.
"When I was accepted, the teacher in me rejoiced at being a student for a change. I loved getting a whole year of education in Jewish history. The entire experience has been unique, a gift I've given to myself," Engel says.
According to education director Steinberg, a second training program will begin probably in spring, this one with the option of evening classes, to help with projected student-group visits and themed tours.
Applicants should gird for a challenge.
Linda Markoff of Cherry Hill, a metal artist, didn't expect the volume of material she had to master in the course of this program, but master it she did.
"I actually surprised myself," she says. "I've been doing my homework faithfully because I realize how important it is to be informed if you're going to inform others.
"This is a time of my life when I wanted to be doing something significant, and I think I've found it."