Jewish museum in Philly sends most of its staff home without pay

The National Museum of American Jewish History entered bankruptcy court right before the pandemic hit.

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The National Museum of American Jewish History

The National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Like many businesses and cultural institutions, the National Museum of American Jewish History is furloughing employees, sending about two-thirds of its staff home on temporary, unpaid leave.

The COVID-19 pandemic could not have come at a worse time for the museum, just two weeks after it filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy.

Interim CEO Misha Galperin had planned to keep the museum’s doors open while in bankruptcy court.

“Most people associate bankruptcy with inability to function. That’s not the case,” said Galperin.

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The NMAJH had been carrying a debt load from constructing its building at 5th and Market streets, right near Independence Hall. Galperin says in the 10 years since it opened its doors the museum has shown it can fundraise and operate sustainably, but was not able to pay down its initial debt.

“Without that debt, we are a viable institution,” he said.

Then the pandemic hit. On March 13, with ink barely dry on the bankruptcy filing, the museum closed its doors due to the coronavirus, along with every other museum and most of the economy.

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Like other institutions, the Jewish museum quickly initiated salary cuts. But unlike others, the NMAJH’s bankruptcy proceeding makes it ineligible for emergency federal aid, such as the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP).

“It’s a big deal,” said Galperin. “It could have provided 2 ½ months of operating expenses. Without it, we have to cut back, furlough staff, and hopefully weather the rest of the pandemic and bankruptcy.”

Galperin expects to emerge from bankruptcy in six months. He has no idea how long the pandemic will last. Museums and other places of public congregation will likely be some of the last to reopen. Some NMAJH employees are worried they may never get to go back to work.

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