The ACHP continues to honor those who volunteer their time for historic preservation during April, National Volunteer Month. The Museum at Eldridge Street is a Preserve America Steward for demonstrating a successful use of volunteer time and commitment in order to help care for our nation’s historic heritage.
Roberta Berken has spent the last 18 years as a docent at the Museum at Eldridge Street on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, and she says it has been a great gift to her.
Berken moved to New York City in 2002 and was looking for something interesting to do. While attending a program at the Eldridge Street Synagogue, someone approached her and suggested she look into becoming a docent there.
“The most interesting people in the world come to the Museum at Eldridge Street,” Berken said. “It’s already exciting to meet such interesting people, but since the museum is off the beaten path, it takes a special person to make the schlepp to come.”
Berken was enamored with the story the National Historic Landmark told of Jewish immigrants to the Lower East Side and was able to understand what it must have been like for them coming to a big city.
The Eldridge Street Synagogue was built in 1887, the first great house of worship built in America by Eastern European Jews. It had been one of the busiest synagogues in the country but was closed in the 1950s and fell into disrepair. It was rediscovered and a 20-year, $18.5 million restoration took place, and was reopened in 2007 as the Museum at Eldridge Street.
Currently there are 40 active docents, all of whom have undergone a six-month training program, learning about the Museum building’s history, the history of immigration on the Lower East Side, and about architectural preservation concepts and practices. They lead historic building tours six days a week, on the hour every hour, Sunday through Friday. The docents help develop and implement a broad range of interpretive programs, and are trained to provide tours for those on the autism spectrum and those with physical challenges. They assist in running cultural events and creating educational content for museum publications, audio guides, text panels, interactive computer kiosks, and other interpretive media.
The Volunteer Development program has resulted in 75 percent of the docents staying for more than five years, 32 percent for more than 10 years, and 10 percent for more than 20 years.
“The impact of our volunteer docents is substantial,” said Eva Brune, Vice President for Institutional Advancement at the Museum. “As a small, not-for-profit, we rely on volunteers to help staff deliver programs. We could not function without them. Because they are the first person visitors meet when they visit the museum, our volunteer docents create the first impression that visitors have of our museum. Our guests love our docents.”
Brune said audience surveys conducted last year showed that more than 99 percent of visitors said their volunteer docent-led tour “met or exceeded their expectations.”
Berken, a retired psychologist, said she has enjoyed working with the staff and feels like the museum group is like a family.
“It’s been a wonderful experience being there, and I hope to do it a lot longer,” Berken said.
For more information about the Museum at Eldridge Street, visit https://www.eldridgestreet.org/.