Week 5: National Museum of American Jewish Military History

Museum Mission: The mission of the National Museum of American Jewish Military History is to collect and preserve, for future generations, memorabilia and written and oral records of the patriotic contributions of Jewish Americans who served in the Armed Forces of the United States from the time of the founding of this country to the present. The National Museum of American Jewish Military History seeks to educate the public by utilizing the museum’s collections for exhibitions, publications, and programs.

NMAJMH is a free museum located a short walk from the Dupont Circle Metro station. Some of the material was quite sad: the horrors Jews experienced during the Holocaust and struggles to rebuild their lives afterward; the exhibit titled A Mother’s Grief about military deaths. At the same time, there was also a sense of pride and patriotism, particularly in the Women in the Military: A Jewish Perspective exhibit. This exhibit highlighted the accomplishments of Jewish women in the US armed forces, showed posters promoting women’s abilities to serve, and included listening devices that allowed visitors to hear women singing military marches.

My visit coincided with an elementary school field trip that appeared not to be going quite as the chaperons had hoped. Rather than focusing on the assigned scavenger hunt activity, the kids were engaged in the pastimes of Running Around and Making Noise. Like anyone who has taken children on a school field trip, I’ve been there and done that myself.

Captain Joshua L. Goldberg Memorial Chapel

The kids were most interested in the Captain Joshua L. Goldberg Memorial Chapel on the lower level. But they did not squeal about “the Captain Joshua L. Goldberg Memorial Chapel.” They squealed about “the church!” As in, “I’m going back in the church!” And they ran in circles that always ended up back in the small chapel. Once in there, they were interested in trying on the yarmulkes that sat on a table; a teacher told the kids to treat the yarmulkes with “great reverence.” But overall, the adults discouraged spending much time in “the church” and admonished the kids to complete the scavenger hunt.

As an observer, it is all too easy for me to call it a lost opportunity, a missed teachable moment. Here was a group of kids, genuinely interested in something in a museum, something that (presumably) reminded them of something in their own lives but also was not the same. Here was a chance to explain that the chapel was not a church – but this is what it is, and this is what these items are used for. Maybe the kids would have been interested to learn that the chapel’s namesake, Joshua L. Goldberg, was the first rabbi to serve as a World War II Naval Chaplain, and that he led interfaith services.

Of course, I was not the one responsible for the behavior of this class, or for their completion of the assignment, or for test scores at the end of the year. Furthermore, I understand that talking to young students about religion can be pretty sticky. But my lofty ideals love the prospects of a) spending at least some time in whichever part of the museum most piques the kids’ interest, and b) taking advantage of a chance to explain that there are different religions and traditions in the world, and that this chapel (not called a church) is named after a man who conducted services for people of different religions to attend together. There, a lesson in tolerance and multiculturalism and let’s-all-get-along.

The pretty stained glass alone makes me understand why visitors, kids included, might be drawn to the chapel. And I confess that it cleared up a misconception for me, too: at home, I made sure to look up the definition and variety of uses for the word chapel.


About Laura

Paralegal with Master of Arts in Teaching in Museum Education, frequent museum visitor, based in Washington, DC. I care about what museums can do, both in terms of public offerings and internal practices, to make the world a better place. I blog about museum education ("informed"), the social work of museums ("humane"), and visitor experience ("citizenry").
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