PHILADELPHIA (AP) -- There's an ancient Hebrew expression the city's 33-year-old Jewish history museum seems to have taken to heart: "Those who do not grow, grow smaller." The National Museum of American Jewish History is moving from its cramped quarters to a large new space in the city's historic district, and plans to use the high-profile location to grow its mission, its message and its audience. The 100,000 square-foot, five-story museum, scheduled to open sometime in 2010, is dedicated to telling the story of 350 years of Jewish life in America and providing a national home base for scholarly meetings and community discussions. Perhaps what is most important to museum officials, however, is making it a place where Americans can see their own immigrant roots reflected in the Jewish experience. Like all immigrant groups, Jews changed American society just as assimilation changed their culture. "No other museum is dedicated in its entirety to American Jewish history like we are," said Gwen Goodman, the museum's CEO who is heading up the massive project. "What are the choices and challenges ethnic groups make for living in freedom? It's the story of America, told through a Jewish lens." The $150 million facility — 80 percent of which has been raised so far — is being built steps from the National Constitution Center, Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell. It will replace the current museum, a small brick building a block away that had a scant 40 objects on display when it opened for the city's 1976 Bicentennial celebrations. Its current collection of 20,000 items has the place practically bursting at the seams, leaving precious little room for exhibits. Even so, some 40,000 people visit annually. "We have been getting more requests from visitors to do more programming, which we didn't have the space for," Goodman said. That's about to change. The steel skeleton of the new building is currently being built. A central atrium will fill the space with natural light; below ground level, a space has been constructed to house classrooms and a 200-seat auditorium for films, concerts and theater. On the first floor, an "Only in America" gallery will examine the careers and contributions of Jewish Americans, including Bob Dylan, Betty Friedan, Estee Lauder and Sandy Koufax. The second, third and fourth floors break down the Jewish experience here from the arrival of the earliest Jewish immigrants to America in 1654 to the present, and the top floor will host changing exhibitions and events. The new museum is expected to attract around 250,000 people annually, Goodman said. Along with providing a modern aesthetic, the structure and materials were chosen to convey meaning. The museum will have a full-length glass wall that will face Independence Hall — symbolizing the interconnectedness of American and Jewish culture, and signifying America as a place where Jews do not need to hide who they are.
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