Stories from Behind the Scenes: A Docent’s Perspective

By Meredith Carroll, Museum at Eldridge Street Summer Intern

Mel Birnbaum has been a docent here at Eldridge Street for nearly seven years. He has greeted students, families, and tour groups from around the world. Only last year, however, did Mel meet a new type of guest: a teddy bear.

“One day, this couple comes in: mother, father, and their [thirty-something] daughter,” Mel recalls. Strapped to the mother in a baby sling was none other than a stuffed bear. Mel began his tour; the woman repeated each segment to her fuzzy companion. All the while, her husband took copious photographs and her daughter engaged in copious head-shaking. Several weeks later, Mel received a package containing hundreds of the family’s photographs from that tour. To this day, however, Mel’s most unique visitor remains a mystery.

Mel in action, on a recent tour that included several visitors but no teddy bears.

Mel in action, on a recent tour that included several visitors but no teddy bears.

A teddy bear may make for an especially unusual story. But if there’s one thing Mel has learned in his 7+ years of docent work, it’s how to take things in stride. He arrived at Eldridge Street in 2007, with experience as a guide at Fraunces Tavern and at the World Trade Center already under his belt.

As Mel puts it: “Having dealt with tours [before]… I knew about people. And I knew you never know who’s going to come through the door, what kind of questions they’re going to ask.” One tour might contain a group of Orthodox Jews from Brooklyn. On another, he might meet a French family who has never been in a synagogue.

In fact, Mel says, correcting modern-day assumptions about worship practices can be just as hard as educating visitors anew. Eldridge Street’s earliest congregants worshiped quite differently from many Jews today; they didn’t have a rabbi, for one in their earliest years.

Meanwhile, visitors less familiar with Judaism connect with the synagogue in different ways. Many are surprised to learn that a boy as young as 13 could conduct services, provided he had undergone his bar mitzvah. “The Torah is [also] an interesting thing for them,” Mel points out, noting how much effort and ritual goes into crafting each scroll. “It’s almost akin to a book in a church written in Latin.”

In Mel’s case, though, his Jewish heritage has been central to his work at the museum.

Mel in front of our beautiful facade.

Mel in front of our beautiful facade.

“I was born and raised about a mile and a half from here,” he reminisces. He attended synagogue with his grandfather, an immigrant from Austria-Hungary who would drag young Mel “by the ear” to Saturday morning services.

“I’ve always had a Jewish connection, because of my upbringing,” Mel says of his decision to volunteer at Eldridge Street. On his tours, this has translated into a focus on the immigrant experience.

“There are certain things that attract each person” to Eldridge Street, observes Mel. “In my own case, [it was] the story of the immigrant because my grandparents exactly fit that model. My parents were young children when they came here. And I have these stories about the immigrants, and it just ties it in for me: that they came here from depressed areas and they walked into this building just bursting with pride.”

Above all, Mel hopes to bring these immigrants to life.

“People who came to this country came for two good reasons,” he opines. “Religious freedom and the possibility of becoming a citizen. Two things they didn’t have at home. And to me, that summarizes what this building is about.”

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For his part, Mel has found a supportive community here at Eldridge Street among staff and among fellow docents.

“As docents, we work well together,” Mel explains. “And I always, from day one, thought the staff was people-oriented.”

This is not to say that every docent’s tour is the same. And as Mel observes, that’s a good thing.

“Every docent approaches the tour in a different way,” he notes. But, he also notes, visitors almost always walk away impressed, informed, and intrigued by the very history that resonates so personally with Mel.

Or, as Mel puts it: “Whatever the format, the message is getting out.”

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