Steel girders, plywood guardrails, windblown sawdust, and gloomy caverns of concrete are all there is to see at the National Museum of American Jewish History on Independence Mall.

But when the $150 million, five-story cube with the bold, white facade opens late next year, those dark recesses will be bright, interactive exhibit spaces telling the history of Jews in America since 1654, when they first arrived from Brazil.

The story is peopled with more than 2.5 million immigrants, many of whom built new lives on the margins of a suspicious "Christian" nation, excluded from the workplace, neighborhoods, clubs, and universities.

But theirs also is the story of a group that flourished under American freedoms to produce some of the nation's most celebrated citizens - Albert Einstein, Jonas Salk, Groucho Marx, Irving Berlin, Louis Brandeis, Henry Kissinger, Bob Dylan, and . . . who else?

That's what the museum wants to know.

Today it will launch a Web site that invites the public (you don't have to be Jewish) to help decide the 18 Jewish Americans, past and present, "whose accomplishments should be recognized in a major museum exhibition."

To be called the "Only in America" gallery, the permanent, ground-floor exhibition will serve as a Jewish American hall of fame.

From now until Aug. 9, visitors to the Web site can nominate candidates for inclusion or choose (and learn) from a list of 218 Jewish Americans prepared by the museum's historians.

Divided into nine categories, the lineup ranges from the recondite (Nobel laureate and physicist Richard Feynman and cultural critic Susan Sontag) to the ridiculous (the Three Stooges); from high art (painter Mark Rothko, composer Aaron Copland) to pop (Barbra Streisand, the Warner brothers, Steven Spielberg); from the obvious (Einstein) to the obscure.

Ever hear of Judah Benjamin? During the Civil War, he was the Confederacy's secretary of both war and state.

"The story we're telling is what a particular group can achieve when given the blessings of freedom," said Michael Rosenzweig, the museum's president and CEO.

That message has been a quiet theme of the current National Museum of American Jewish History, an unremarkable 3,000-square-foot gallery a half-block from the new building. Opened July 4, 1976, it shares space at 55 N. Fifth St. with historic Congregation Mikveh Israel, the city's oldest Jewish congregation.

In late 2005, the museum board was preparing a massive expansion of the site - a design already had been commissioned from New York architect James S. Polshek - when the members learned that KYW-TV was preparing to vacate its building at Fifth and Market Streets.

Expanding their capital campaign, they quickly raised $9.5 million to acquire the building before it went on the market, and returned to Polshek's firm to design a 100,000-square-foot building that would take advantage of the superlative location.

They then reached out to foundations and private philanthropists nationwide, including Spielberg, computer-maker Michael Dell, and clothier Sidney Kimmel. To date, they have raised $118 million of the needed $150 million.

"We are so fortunate to be here," the museum's "executive director emerita," Gwen Goodman, marveled last week as she gazed out onto Independence Mall from the top floor of the new building.

Due to open in November 2010, the museum will "tell the practical story of what happens when you live under those two documents," Goodman said, pointing one block south to the brick building where Jefferson, Franklin, and Adams signed the Declaration of Independence, then north to the modern National Constitution Center.

"And of course," she added, gesturing straight ahead, "there you have the Liberty Bell." Its inscription - "Proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof" - comes from the biblical book of Leviticus.

"The first time I came up here, I started to cry," Goodman said. She has been active at the museum since its first year.

The new building makes no attempt to mimic the federal brick style of Independence Hall, promising instead to challenge the Constitution Center for visual boldness. (A webcam showing construction of the building, which refreshes every 10 minutes, is available at the museum's main Web page.)

Much of its exterior will be terra-cotta, similar to the Bourse, its immediate neighbor to the south.

Its face on the historic mall, however, will be a massive, rectangular slab of glass etched with a white weave pattern. As visitors descend from floor to floor, their route will take them out onto balconies overlooking the mall, where they can "reflect on the meaning of freedom in whatever way appeals to them," according to Gallagher & Associates, the exhibition design firm.

The top floor will be reserved for changing exhibitions, which could include artifacts from its affiliate, the Smithsonian Institution.

The fourth floor will focus on colonial days through 1880, when the great immigration wave began that brought more than 2 million Jews to the United States.

The third floor will take visitors into the 1940s; the second floor, from World War II to the present. Nazi Germany's execution of 6 million European Jews will be included, Rosenzweig said, but with more than 80 Holocaust museums already in the United States, "we are staying focused on the American Jewish experience."

The ground floor will house the "Only in America" gallery, whose principal benefactor is Ed Snider, chairman of Comcast Spectacor and one of its 218 nominees for inclusion.

Visitors to the Web site can vote for three people in each category, according to Rosenzweig, or they can nominate their own.

Recognizing the pitfall of ballot-stuffing, however, the museum's historians will use the votes largely as a guide, he said - a "public barometer of who has had real and lasting significance."

To vote

To vote for which Jewish Americans to include in the "Only in America" gallery at the new National Museum of American Jewish History, visit www.nmajh.org.EndText

Contact staff writer David O'Reilly at 215-854-5723 or doreilly@phillynews.com.