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Where to Experience Jewish Culture and History in NYC

Where to Experience Jewish Culture and History in NYC

Jews and Jewish culture have had a strong influence on New York City for centuries. And no wonder: The New York metropolitan area is home to more Jewish people than any other city in the U.S., and more than any other city in the entire world aside from Tel Aviv. Experiencing Jewish history and culture in NYC with your kids is easy, fun, and educational. Here are some of the many ways to do so.

The Jewish Museum

Locate on the Upper East Side’s Museum Mile, the Jewish Museum houses nearly 30,000 works of art and Judaica items. Programming includes family- and child-oriented events and activities, including concerts, arts-and-crafts programs, and gallery tours. Among the museum’s permanent exhibits are Culture and Continuity: The Jewish Journey, which explores how the Jewish experience has evolved from ancient times to the present, and the child-focused Archaeology Zone: Discovering Treasures from Playgrounds to Palaces. Temporary exhibits cover everything from fine art to pop culture, all with a Jewish flavor.

The Lower East Side

For many Jewish immigrants dreaming of streets paved with gold here in America, the Lower East Side became their American shtetl (small town), providing home and community as they adjusted to their new country and eked out a living best as they could. Walking tours explore the neighborhood’s Jewish past, or you can wander the streets by yourself and find the Lower East Side’s Jewish history literally written in stone: Observe how many buildings have Yiddish inscriptions or other telltale signs that they once were synagogues or other Jewish institutions. And don’t forget to sample the old-school cuisine, including pickles from the barrel, knishes, or takeout from Russ & Daughters “appetizing” shop.

The Lower East Side Tenement Museum

Housed in the sort of multi-family residential building in which millions of poor newcomers—Jewish, Irish, and so many others—lived when they first arrived in the United States, the Tenement Museum brings the immigrant experience to life by telling the story of this one building’s history and the many families that passed through it. The museum also runs walking tours of the surrounding neighborhood, likewise focusing on the Lower East Side’s many immigrant stories.

The Museum at Eldridge Street

synagogue interior

Photo: Peter Aaron/OTTO

Housed in an synagogue building built in 1887, the Museum at Eldridge Street offers tours of the historic sanctuary as well as exhibits, programs, and neighborhood tours focusing on Jewish American history and culture. Kids can participate in Preservation Detectives, in which they use binoculars, magnifying glasses, and other tools to discover the secrets of the museum building. The annual Egg Rolls, Egg Creams, and Empanadas Festival in June celebrates the cultural diversity of the neighborhood, with, as the name suggests, a delicious emphasis on traditional cuisine.

The Jewish Children’s Museum

Located in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, the Jewish Children’s Museum offer multi-media, hands-on exhibits to educate kids about Jewish history, tradition and rituals, and contemporary life. A Gallery of Games ensures that any learning happens while the kids are immersed in the serious business of having fun.

The Museum of Jewish Heritage

The Museum of Jewish Heritage takes a unique approach for a Holocaust museum, focusing on the totality of Jewish life and culture in the 20th and 21st centuries, before, during, and after the Shoah (Holocaust). The museum, located in Battery Park in Lower Manhattan, caters to children in several ways, including a kid-focused guide to its first floor, plus at-home follow-up activities, entitled You are a Museum Detective. The Case: Looking for Heritage in All the Right Places. The Voices of Liberty program, appropriate for ages 5 and older, uses interactive technology to convey the stories of myriad Jews, including Holocaust survivors and refugees, in their own words, all in a space with a view of the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. 

Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty

statue of liberty

Like the Lower East Side, neither the Statue of Liberty nor Ellis Island is exclusively or even primarily Jewish, but both loom large in the American Jewish consciousness. The Statue of Liberty was the first sight many Eastern European Jewish immigrants saw as they approached their new country, and fittingly so, with its invitation to “Give me your tired, your poor / Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” And Ellis Island was the first American land many of them set foot on, the site where new immigrants were processed and admitted to the country—or, unfortunately, sent back if they did not meet the acceptable criteria for some reason. Visits to these two venues allow families to connect with this essential piece of American Jewish history, and sometimes with their own family’s history.

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Synagogues of All Types

Whatever your flavor of Judaism may be, there is guaranteed to be a shul (synagogue) for you in NYC, whether as a one-time visitor or long-term member. Most have services every Friday night and Saturday, along with holidays and other times. If you’re looking for modern innovation and a progressive atmosphere, try the music-filled, social-justice-focused B’nai Jeshurun or Congregation Beit Simchat Torah, founded in 1973 as a spiritual community for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer Jews. For a more traditional and formal environment, head to the Orthodox Congregation Shearith Israel—also known as the Spanish and Portuguese synagogue, founded in 1654—or to the venerable Central Synagogue, a Reform congregation. Or check out any of the countless other shuls around the region.

Jewish Delis

katz deli nyc

Jewish delicatessens, purveyors of hotdogs, cold cuts, knishes, and so much more, once dotted New York. Today, they’re a dying breed, but not yet extinct. Katz’s Delicatessen on the Lower East and 2nd Ave Deli in Murray Hill (though no longer on Second Avenue) are still offering traditional deli menus (albeit at very 21st-century prices). For less famous yet still delicious deli, schlep to the Bronx, where Liebman's Delicatessen in the Riverdale section and Loeser’s Deli in nearby Kingsbridge have been serving up pastrami on rye since 1953 and 1961, respectively.

Broadway Shows

Jewish artists’ contributions to American theater, especially the Broadway musical, is vast and well documented, and includes the work of such luminaries as Irving Berlin, the Gershwin brothers, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein, Leonard Bernstein, Barbra Streisand and so many more. Currently, catch that most Jewish of shows, Fiddler on the Roof, at the Broadway Theatre.

Mitzvah Tanks

A project of the Chabad Lubavitch sect of Hasidic Jews, mitzvah tanks—RVs outfitted to offer Jewish ritual experiences--are a staple of Manhattan life, especially as Jewish holidays near. You can always know one is around by the Jewish music playing from the tanks’ speakers and the Hasidic men outside asking passersby whether they are Jewish. An affirmative response will earn you a trip inside, to experience some traditional Jewish rituals and prayers.

The Celebrate Israel Parade

celebrate israel parade nyc

Usually held in early June, Celebrate Israel offers Jewish groups and individuals from across the tristate area a chance to set politics aside and cheer for the Jewish state. Whether you march or go as a bystander, there are few better chances to see NYC’s Jewish community in all its diversity in one place and at one time.

Local Jewish Community Centers and Communal Events

JCCs, YMHAs and YWHAs, and other Jewish cultural organizations serve many communities in the New York metro region, offering a range of public programming and community events, including art shows, street fairs, and holiday celebrations. In Manhattan, 92Y and JCC Manhattan, among many other institutions, offer a full slate of cultural and educational programming on a wide variety of topics. 

In a region as full of vibrant Jewish life as the New York metro area, these are just a sampling of the many ways to experience Jewish history and culture locally with your kids. Of course, there also are myriad public holiday events, such as Hanukkah candle-lightings ceremonies, around the region, and any number of other Jewish experiences to be had in NYC and the surrounding suburbs. From cuisine to congregations, you’re never far from Jewish life in New York!

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