Peruse articles that discuss CAJM activities and initiatives, offer major news from our constituent members, or address current issues in the field.
- AAM Advocacy Alert: Help Fight Proposed Elimination of IMLS, NEA and NEH
- Important suggestions and advocacy resources for museums…
Trump Budget Proposes Billions in Cuts, Including Elimination of IMLS, NEH and NEA
This morning, the Trump Administration formally proposed eliminating the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS), the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), and the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) in its preliminary budget proposal for Fiscal Year 2018. These eliminations are part of a package that the administration projects would cut $54 billion in domestic spending in order to offset an identical increase in defense spending. Although a full budget proposal is not expected from the Administration until May, this document also appears to target museum-related programs at the Department of Education, the Department of State, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
“While these proposals from the Trump Administration were rumored for some time, they are no less alarming and disturbing to see released today. The Institute of Museum and Library Services, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the National Endowment for the Arts, and other programs play an essential role in helping museums make the arts and the humanities accessible to all Americans,” said Alliance President and CEO Laura Lott. “It is Congress—not the President—that will ultimately determine funding levels for these vital agencies. After a record-setting presence at Museums Advocacy Day 2017, the Alliance will continue to work with our allies to build on Congress’ tradition of strong bipartisan support for these agencies. We hope you will join our efforts today.”
Congressional Budget Process Kicks Off; Make Your Voice Heard
Over the next few weeks, members of Congress will begin to inform the House and Senate Appropriations Committees—which have jurisdiction over this area of federal spending—which programs they believe should receive funding in Fiscal Year 2018. Those committees will then strongly consider this information as they begin writing funding bills. As part of this process, U.S. Representatives Paul Tonko (D-NY), Leonard Lance (R-NJ), Louise Slaughter (D-NY), and David McKinley (R-WV) as well as U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) are circulating letters of support for the IMLS Office of Museum Services.
Ask your members of Congress to sign on in support of the Office of Museum Services
While some legislators in both parties have already expressed skepticism about the budget proposal, this is the first time that a president has ever called for eliminating any of these agencies. Find out how much funding museums in your state get from IMLS, NEH, and NEA with our State Snapshots, and tell your legislators to support NEH and NEA today.
Want to do more to #SpeakUpforMuseums? Use our tools to make the case to Capitol Hill and in your community.
- Holocaust Organizations and Historians Urge Action
- With reports surfacing that the President plans to defund the U.S. State Department’s Office to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism, more than 100 Holocaust institutions, scholars, and educators from around the world are calling on government officials not to cut, but to maintain and strengthen the office.…
These institutions and individuals cite the recent examples of hatred, xenophobia, and racism spreading across the nation and ask the public to call Congressional and Senate offices. Read the full statement, see the list of signatories, and respond to calls for action by following this link: http://bit.ly/2mAVh7i.
- Bomb threat prompts evacuation of Jewish Children’s Museum in Brooklyn
- The Jewish Children's Museum in Crown Heights, Brooklyn was evacuated Thursday after staffers received an email about a bomb in the building.…
The Jewish Children’s Museum in Brooklyn was evacuated Thursday after staffers received an alarming email saying several pipe bombs had been hidden in the building, officials said. Nothing was found after a three-hour search.
Cops raced to the museum on Eastern Parkway near Kingston Ave. in Crown Heights after the email came in around 9:30 a.m., officials said.
The building was cleared and cops conducted a floor-by-floor inspection.
No bombs were found after a painstaking three-and-a-half-hour search of the building. Staffers and children were allowed back in beginning at 1 p.m., officials said.
The institution was built in memory of a Jewish teen killed by a terrorist on the Brooklyn Bridge in 1994.
Museum staffers including Devorah Halberstam, the mother of murdered 16-year-old Ari Halberstam, watched as cops conducted the search.
"It's a horrible thing that happened to us today," Halberstam said, breaking down in tears outside the museum with Gov. Cuomo by her side. "It was only last week that it was the anniversary of (Ari's) death. That this happened the very same week... is suffering. Very, very deep suffering."
Despite the threat, Halberstam said that she and the rest of the museum staff will soldier on.
"We will be open for business as soon as they do a clean sweep of the museum," she said. "We want all the children to not only come, but to continue coming every day.
"We all stand together and we do stand together against these messages of evil and hate," Halberstam added.
Gov. Cuomo, who recently ordered a coordinated investigation into a series of bomb threats against Jewish institutions across the state, called Thursday's "one of the cruelest ironies yet in this rash of anti-Semitism that we've been experiencing.
"This museum is a monument to tolerance," he said. "This is a situation that is repugnant to the concept of the state of New York. We are New Yorkers, which means by definition, we applaud and appreciate diversity.
"More dramatic action must be had," Cuomo continued. "(The threats are) disgusting, it's repugnant and every New Yorker should be embarrassed."
Resident Yehoshua Carbonera, 22, agreed as he watched cops surround the museum, his eyes tearing up.
"It's a threat against the Jewish people. It's close to home. It's a scary thing, very alarming," Carbonera said. "These are children. These are people."
Yochevet Grape, 53, was rattled by the police activity.
"I have a teenage daughter who comes here sometimes," he said. "It's scary. This is the world. People are being persecuted for being who they are."
The threat was directed to the Jewish Children's Museum "concerning museum security," according to the email, which was acquired by the Daily News.
"A group of individuals who I used to work for... have successfully planted pipe bombs at the museum and the devices are set to go off today at a busy hour of the day," the email read. "To my knowledge I am aware there are three pipe bombs scattered throughout the museum. They will be detonated via cellphone that my group leader has in his possession."
The person making the threat said the bomb plot had been hammered out for months - and that a museum staffer helped plant the bombs.
"This is going to be a well planned attack," the email writer said, claiming that he decided to tip off museum workers after a change of heart.
"I made wrong decisions in my life which I deeply regret," the email stated. "I befriended these people and went on with them to carry out this attack. I recently cleared my mind and I want to prevent this bombing attack for taking place by notifying you."
Cops are working to track down the person who sent the threatening email.
Opened in 2005, the institution is the largest Jewish-themed children's museum in the United States.
The threat came as scores of Jewish centers have been targeted with bomb threats in a series of apparently coordinated calls.
None of the threats directly led to violence.
Gov. Cuomo has ordered a special state police unit to coordinate with federal and local law enforcement to investigate the disturbing trend. He is also allocating funds for more security for Jewish institutions.
Hate crimes are up 113% so far this year compared to the same period in 2016, Police Commissioner James O'Neill said Tuesday. There was an alarming spike in anti-Semitic incidents - 55 so far this year, compared to 19 during the same time frame in 2016.
- I Buried My Negatives in the Ground ...
- The Washington Post has published a number of images taken by photojournalist Henryk Ross documenting the Lodz Ghetto under the Nazi Regime. He buried the negatives in 1944 to record these events and individuals. CAJM members will preview the "Memory Unearthed" exhibit at Boston's Museum of Fine Arts during our upcoming conference.…
‘I buried my negatives in the ground in order that there should be some record of our tragedy.' The photographs of Henryk Ross.
Officially, former Polish press photojournalist Henryk Ross was forced to work by the Nazi regime as a bureaucratic photographer for the Jewish Administration's statistics department. He took photographs for Jewish identification cards, as well as images used as propaganda for the Lodz Ghetto. Ross, a Jew, was one of at least 160,000 people held in the Lodz Ghetto in Poland, second only to the Warsaw Ghetto in German-occupied Europe.
Unofficially, at great personal danger, Ross documented the cruel truth of life under Nazi rule. In the four-year existence of the Lodz Ghetto, a quarter of its prisoners died of starvation. In 1942, nearly 20,000 were deported to the death camp of Chelmno; in 1944, 70,000 were sent to Auschwitz.
An exhibition, "Memory Unearthed," organized by the Art Gallery of Ontario, presents more than 200 of Ross's photographs. It is on view in Boston's Museum of Fine Arts from March 25 to July 30.
See the full article and photographs: http://wapo.st/2me1iaG
- At least 16 Jewish sites threatened in sixth wave of harassment
- Report on the most recent threats against JCCs across North America and against four ADL offices.…
(JTA) - At least 12 Jewish community centers and institutions across North America and four Anti-Defamation League offices have received threats of lethal attack, the sixth such wave since the beginning of the year.
As of Tuesday afternoon, threats had been reported at Jewish institutions in Massachusetts, Illinois, Wisconsin, Maryland, Oregon, Florida, Alabama and at least two community centers in New York, according to Secure Community Network, the security arm of the Jewish Federations of North America. In addition, two threats were directed toward Canadian JCCs, in Toronto and London, Ontario.
Some threats were called in over the phone, others were emailed.
Chicago5, NBC's Chicago affiliate, reported a bomb threat at the Chicago Jewish Day School on the city's North Side. The Boston Herald reported that a day school housed at Temple Beth Shalom in Framingham, Massachusetts, and the Solomon Schechter Day School in Newton, Massachusetts, were both evacuated on Tuesday.
At the JCC in Syracuse, New York, the threat was different in nature from the others, according to Paul Goldenberg, the SCN director, who declined to elaborate. On Twitter, the Syracuse JCC said people inside had sheltered in place before getting the all-clear.
Our campus received a phone threat this AM. Everyone is safe and all is ok. We were in shelter in place. Police just gave all clear.
11:18 AM - 7 Mar 2017
1 1 Retweet 6 6 likes
Meanwhile, the ADL said its national office in New York, its office in Washington, D.C., and its regional offices in Atlanta and Boston had been threatened.
"This is not ‘normal.' We will not be deterred or intimidated," ADL's CEO, Jonathan Greenblatt, said in a statement. "It is time for action, and we call on the administration and Congress to take concrete steps to catch those threatening the Jewish community."
The Portland, Oregon, threat came in Monday evening by email. The JCC alerted local police and the FBI and closed early for a sweep.
In Rochester, the evacuation of members and staff on Tuesday was ordered shortly before 6 a.m., the local ABC affiliate 13WHAM reported. About 75 people were evacuated from the building. Parents whose children attend the JCC day care were notified and asked to make alternate child care arrangements for the day, according to the Democrat & Chronicle newspaper.
Local and state police officers and FBI agents reportedly were on the scene to sweep the building.
The bomb threat comes less than a week after at least five headstones were toppled at the Waad Hakolel Cemetery, also known as the Stone Road Cemetery, in Rochester.
A JCC Toronto client posted photos on Facebook of the downtown building being evacuated. "We are huddled inside the Second Cup where they are giving out free coffee and tea," she said, referring to the Canadian coffee shop chain.
Ron Halber, the director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington, said a threat to the JCC in Rockville, Maryland, was emailed late Monday night, and necessitated an additional sweep of the premises with bomb-sniffing dogs, in addition to the routine daily sweep the JCC undergoes. There was no evacuation, he said.
"The person who is doing this will fail," Halber said. "If anything it's bringing people together, it makes people want to stand up more, this is being a catalyst for greater Jewish involvement and pride."
Goldenberg, the SCN director, said that in every instance protocols were observed and went smoothly.
"The protocols and processes that these institutions have in place have gone smoothly," he said. "Our constituents and members have remained safe."
More than 100 Jewish institutions, mostly JCCs, have received bomb threats since the beginning of the year. The last two weeks saw vandalism at Jewish cemeteries in Philadelphia, St. Louis and Rochester, as well as two more waves of bomb threats called into JCCs, schools and institutions across the country, representing the fourth and fifth waves of such harassment this year. No explosive device was found after any of the calls.
BREAKING NEWS: A heavy police presence at the JCC in Brighton. Our crew on scene reports the center is temporarily closed. @13WHAM
6:40 AM - 7 Mar 2017
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- Inside Sara Berman’s Closet at the Met Museum
- At CAJM's 2016 conference, Maira Kalman and Alex Kalman discussed the upcoming installation of a distinctive closet belonging to their, respectively, late mother and grandmother. The Times reports on this new addition to the Met's American Wing.…
There are 21 period rooms in the American Wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, ranging from a 17th-century colonial interior to an enormous Prairie-style living room by Frank Lloyd Wright, each designed to transport the viewer back in time.
The newest addition, however, is an unexpected meditation on modern city life: a modest closet from a studio apartment in the West Village, filled with the curious, lovely and very particular personal effects of Sara Berman, a Belarussian and Israeli émigré who was the mother of Maira Kalman, the irreverent artist, book author and illustrator. (Her credits include the memorable "New Yorkistan" cover of The New Yorker, created with her boyfriend, Rick Meyerowitz.)
[Photo: Andrew White for The New York TImes]
Sara Berman wore only white. She was a cracker-jack ironer and closet cleaner. She spent a lot of time in Loehmann's - Ms. Kalman likes to say that she was very chic, but not at all vain. She precisely folded and stacked her white T-shirts and socks, her white ribbed sweaters and white, mannish pants. She was a fine cook, but her repertoire was limited mostly to schnitzel, blintzes, latkes and sesame cookies. (You'll see an Israeli-made potato grater in her closet.) She was also a knitter and made sweaters for the family's beloved dog, Pete, even though she was terrified of him. When she died and Ms. Kalman and her sister, Kika Schoenfeld, an artist, hat maker and interior designer, were cleaning out her apartment, Ms. Kalman joked that their mother's closet should be a museum and Ms. Schoenfeld its docent. "My sister said, ‘Are you out of your mind?'" Ms. Kalman recalled.
Nonetheless, they saved all of Sara's belongings.
And one morning last month, Ms. Kalman, her son, Alex Kalman, a designer and director, and Amelia Peck, a curator of American decorative arts at the Met, led me through the elaborate collections in the American Wing to a new gallery that would soon be sheathed in white Sheetrock and, for the next six months, hold all these relics of Sara Berman's life, right down to the fluffy red pompom on the end of the closet's light bulb pull cord.
"It's a wonderful way to enliven the collection," Ms. Peck said. "A new way of looking at rooms and possessions and women's history." The exhibition, which opens Monday, will be on view through Sept. 5.
Ms. Kalman and Mr. Kalman had first incarnated Sara's closet in a once-gritty storefront on Cortlandt Alley in TriBeCa. The installation was part of Mr. Kalman's Mmuseumm, a tiny exhibition space housed in a former freight elevator and that storefront, which he founded with the filmmakers Josh and Benny Safdie. Like his mother, Mr. Kalman, 31, tells stories through everyday objects, and Mmuseumm's deeply personal collections have included the tattered wool blanket of a Mexican immigrant, left behind in the Arizona desert, along with goods made by prison workers incarcerated in New York State and a taxonomy of cornflakes.
The contents of Sara Berman's closet became a hit, curatorially speaking. They also reflected the habits of her humble upbringing in Palestine, where the women of her family, Ms. Kalman said, "worked like beasts from morning to night. It was that sense of dedicating yourself to a life of taking care of the people you love, by baking and sewing and cleaning."
Sara was 12 in 1932, when her family left a rough shack in Belarus for a rougher shack in Tel Aviv, part of an exodus of Jewish families away from the pogroms and the poverty of the region. Many of those who stayed behind would be murdered during the Holocaust. Sara, a beauty, was one of four children; their father, a house builder, was a deeply religious man who loved potatoes and praying. Sand filled their new home, a three-room shack flanked by the sea and the desert. Sara; her mother; and her sister, Shoshana would spend hours sweeping it clean and tending to the laundry with military precision: washing, starching and ironing. Sara had tremendous style and dressed in outfits copied from the pages of European fashion magazines and sewn by her mother. For 38 years, she was unhappily married, to a diamond dealer named Pesach Berman.
"Everyone talks about how many suitors she had," Ms. Kalman said, "all jumping out of windows and doors. For her own reasons, she chose my father."
In 1981, Ms. Kalman and her husband, Tibor Kalman, the activist designer who died in 1999, visited Sara in Tel Aviv while they were on their honeymoon; when they returned to New York City, Sara came, too. She loved her new life in a studio apartment a few blocks away from the Kalmans. She watched "Jeopardy" every night, and she could see the Empire State Building from her windows. Her apartment was as singular as her wardrobe. There were children's school chairs, and the floor was strewn with inflatable beach ball globes. "They were sprinkled all around the apartment, so you really had to watch your step," Ms. Kalman said.
Maira Kalman, who is an artist, book author and illustrator. Credit Andrew White for The New York Times
Growing up, Alex and his sister, Lulu, would organize their closets with their grandmother when she came to babysit on the weekends. "You mean it's not what everyone does on the weekend?" he said. "It seemed not just normal but joyful. Installing Sara's closet has been a surreal process," he continued, "because while it felt like we were working on an art installation, at the same time it felt like being a kid again."
At the Met, Sara's closet will be "in dialogue," as Ms. Peck put it, with the florid, Gilded Age boudoir once belonging to Arabella Worsham (the mistress - and later wife - of the railroad magnate Collis Huntington), which features an explosion of marquetry in the style of the Aesthetic Movement. Worsham lived alone with her son in a townhouse on West 54th Street, paid for by her lover, under cover of a pretend widowhood.
Alice Cooney Frelinghuysen, the curator for Arabella's dressing room, noted the contrasts between the two women, the asceticism of Sara and the maximalism of Belle, as she was known, as well as the parallels. "Both were strong, self-motivated individuals," Ms. Frelinghuysen said. "It's interesting the control they each had over their own surroundings, which extended to how they adorned themselves."
For her part, Ms. Kalman said: "Of course, what I think of is the anti-Semitism of the Gilded Age. I wonder if Belle would be appalled by Sara or welcome her into her home. I can't imagine the two women having a dialogue, but there they are."
Ms. Kalman is not the first artist to present her mother's worldly goods in a museum setting. Thematically, "Sara Berman's Closet" most closely recalls a work by the Chinese artist Song Dong, who arrayed the contents of his mother's Beijing house, along with the house itself, at the Museum of Modern Art in 2009. "Waste Not," Mr. Song's title for the show, was an overwhelming collection of hundreds of objects - plastic bottles, rice bowls, stuffed animals, fabric scraps, ballpoint pens - hoarded by a woman traumatized by the Cultural Revolution and by the death of her husband. Her belongings told a story of privation and sorrow; their sheer mass was a bulwark against future hardship.
(Another, creepier reference is an installation that appeared at the New Museum's "The Keeper" exhibition last summer, at which the artist Howard Fried offered the contents of his dead mother's closet, though his piece was an act of mourning. "The Decomposition of My Mother's Wardrobe," as he titled the project, was just that: her clothes, and his intention to let them fall apart naturally.)
Turning Sara's belongings into a museum work meant that each object had to be tagged, photographed and entered into the Met's database. In addition, the items had to be valued for insurance, a mysterious calculus that weighed monetary worth along with other, ineffable measures.
"What is the intrinsic value of a notebook your mother owned?" Ms. Peck asked the artist.
"Where does value come from?" Mr. Kalman said. "Is it from meaning, or because it's an art object at the Met?"
"We spent hours figuring this out," Ms. Peck added. Because of the Met's insurance rules, the value of one of Sara's clean white socks, for example, could not be shared with me.
Sara's closet, said Julie Saul, Ms. Kalman's longtime gallerist, "is about the intimacy of family and representing the essence of someone through their belongings. There are very few boundaries among the ways that Maira works. That can present difficulties to an artist. She's most well-known as an illustrator and a writer, and that may have excluded her from conventional museum collections. It's very hard to navigate the curatorial pathways."
This is not to say that Ms. Kalman doesn't have relationships (often whimsical, always unpredictable) with cultural institutions. She has been a guest curator at the Cooper Hewitt, organizing a show about the comfort of objects that featured the conductor Arturo Toscanini's trousers, lent from her personal collection. She has performed with Ms. Saul, Isaac Mizrahi and the composer Nico Muhly at the New York Public Library, in a percussion-based opera based on Strunk & White's "The Elements of Style," the rule book of English grammar, which Ms. Kalman illustrated in 2005. She has collaborated with Daniel Handler (otherwise known as Lemony Snicket) on a series of books based on the photography collections at the Museum of Modern Art. She once played a duck - in a tutu and flippers - in Mr. Mizrahi's production of "Peter and the Wolf" at the Guggenheim. But the Met has long been her playground. She has provided the route and the narration to the Museum Workout, a sold-out adventure in which dancers lead groups through the Met's collections. Date night for Ms. Kalman and Mr. Meyerowitz means Fridays sketching in the galleries. Ms. Kalman even persuaded the Met's administrators to let her join the cleaning crew for a few hours, part of a daylong apprenticeship in which she worked in the cafeteria and also as a museum guard. "I was in uniform for all three jobs," she said, happily.
What would Sara make of her closet's metamorphosis into, as her grandson put it, "a monument to courage and independence and freedom?" Or the fact that her socks were on display at one of the world's largest cultural institutions?
"She would have thought we were crazy," Ms. Kalman said, "but in the best possible way."
MORE PIX ONLINE AT THE NYT WEBSITE: http://nyti.ms/2mc2OfW
- Jewish Museums as Catalysts for Community
- The CEO and Gwen Goodman Director of the National Museum of American Jewish History argues that Jewish museums are an essential part of the ecology of Jewish history and identity -- and an important part of a vibrant Jewish future.…
"They took all the trees/
And put them in a tree museum/
Then they charged the people/
A dollar and a half just to see 'em"
The quote from singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell points to the perception that museums are where things go to die. Everyone, from the 20th-century artist Marcel Duchamp to the esteemed rabbi and scholar of blessed memory Arthur Herzberg, has asserted this claim. Jewish museums are subject to double jeopardy. One might conclude that if museums are where things go to die, then Jewish museums are where Jewish things go to die. Hence, we are tolling the death knell for Judaism or Jewishness.
The museum field has not done a terribly good job of countering the stereotype. Like many stereotypes, it contains a shred of truth. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, museums were more likely to be storehouses to preserve history than hotbeds of new thinking. However, the dissemination of information has long been an essential function of museums, and has evolved into a public mandate resulting in robust and innovative education programming.
Ed Rothstein (former art critic for The New York Times, more recently of The Wall Street Journal) wrote: "... a Jewish religious object put on exhibit was no longer playing its vital role in synagogue or home; taken out of its context and function, it had been turned into a relic, more closely resembling the artifacts of a fading Native American tribe in a museum of natural history than a 17th-century Dutch portrait at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Even today, a museum of Jewish religious artifacts is partly a Jewish morgue, less a tribute to Judaism's continuity than a memorial to the world of belief left behind. ..."
Obviously, those of us who toil in the field of Jewish museum work must take issue with this. None of us would do this work if we thought those were the ends. In fact, I would argue, Jewish museums are doing quite the opposite. We're just not making the case strongly enough. We're also allowing Jewishness to be defined narrowly by its ritual attributes rather than by all the many things that really make, and keep, Jews Jewish.
Jewish museums may not be the answer to Jewish hand wringing, borne by the 2013 Pew study, which posited that fewer Jews are affiliating Jewishly in traditional ways. Nor are we alike. But we are, I would argue, an essential part of the ecology of Jewish history and identity. Most of all, we are an important part of a vibrant Jewish future.
In this data-driven time, our anecdotal evidence is not sufficient. But it is powerful. In the National Museum of American Jewish History's collection is a beautiful menorah, made by Manfred Anson. (There is a version in the Museum of Jewish Heritage, New York, and at the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles.) Anson, himself a former refugee, created the menorah for the 1986 centenary of the Statue of Liberty. The NMAJH was honored to be asked to bring our menorah to the White House in 2013 for the Hanukkah celebration.
There, it was lit by a Jewish family whose husband and father was deployed in Afghanistan. President Obama lifted one of the children to light the candles and those gathered recited the prayer and sang Ma'oz Tzur. If that isn't Jewish life, I don't know what is.
Jewish museums and historic sites provide ways to think about the present (and future) with knowledge of our past.
Many of my colleagues in American Jewish museums are using their standing in the community and their role as the custodians of history to act on current events. For example, the Jewish Museum of Maryland helped to stem racial tension in Baltimore in the aftermath of Freddie Gray's death, an African American youth shot and killed by Baltimore police, and a landmark case in contemporary race relations in the United States.
At the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York, a long time education program called the Living Museum Project has produced the Interfaith Museum project, in which Muslim students and Jewish day school students partner over the course of a school year to investigate ritual (and other) objects from their homes and to discuss their own traditions. They find differences, of course, but they also uncover profound similarities and understand each other as individuals. Perhaps the most powerful aspect of the program occurs when the Muslim and Jewish families and teachers of the 5th and 6th graders gather at the museum in lower Manhattan to view the exhibition that the kids have curated and organized and share a meal together.
In this highly charged, contentious time in America, where better to address the hot topic of immigration than at the Tenement Museum, Eldridge Street Synagogue, or the National Museum of American Jewish History?
I gave a tour of NMAJH to an interesting family that taught me a lot about the muscle of the museum. The patriarch, his three children, their spouses, and some grandchildren arrived. They had grown up squarely Reform. One of the grown kids married a similarly Reform partner, another married a Catholic man and they were raising their children "both." The third had become Orthodox with children attending yeshivot, their heads covered. Where else could this family have come together to comfortably explore their shared heritage but a Jewish museum?
Recently, we had a small family group that bid for a tour of the museum at their synagogue auction. The group included the parents of one partner of a young lesbian couple. The wife-to-be was not Jewish. For those smart parents, the museum provided an unthreatening space for that family to discuss Jewishness, tradition, and innovation, and to casually explore family history and practice. Incidentally, it also provided a place to learn about the role of queer Jews in the larger struggle for LGBT rights in this country and to find an appropriate, same sex, interfaith ketubbah (Jewish marriage contract) Maybe this is not so incidental, but rather a sign of the malleability of "Jewishness" and Jewish traditions to accommodate societal change.
The Jewish philanthropic field is mixed in its reviews of museums and whether to support them. We will always have funders who want to support a narrow stream of activity and stay in their lane with discipline and precision. Some explicitly state in their guidelines that they won't support museums or entertain proposals from them. I suspect those funders don't really understand what we do and our potential impact. The consequence of their narrow focus means that they lose the opportunity to engage those who have a broader vision of Jewish identity, vitality, community, and religious meaning.
Jewish funders and Jewish museums alike should invest more in what messages our non-Jewish audiences cull from us. Jewish funders who have a singular goal of "Jewish continuity" often don't factor in that Jewish continuity in America includes our hyphenated identity. We need to meet folks on both sides of their hyphen and appeal to their whole selves. For example, the exhibition "Bill Graham and the Rock ‘n Roll Revolution" (organized by the Skirball, and opened at NMAJH in September 2016) is most appealing to rock ‘n roll fans, but attracts Jews and non-Jews who learn the astounding story of how a Holocaust orphan, who began his American life in foster care in the Bronx at age 10, grew up to stage manage the rock revolution. Or our recent induction of Julius Rosenwald into our Only in America Hall of Fame. We have been sharing the little known story of this first generation Jewish American whose incredible innovation and entrepreneurship as president of Sears and Roebuck made him a very wealthy man in the early 20th century. He used his fortune to engage in his civic community (for example, helping to build what is now the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago), his Jewish community (by helping to save Jewish refugees fleeing pogroms), and the African-American community in the rural south, for which he helped build more than 5,000 schools for African-American children who did not have access to quality education because of segregation. Promoting the story of Julius Rosenwald helps us instill pride in being Jewish and American, while inspiring our audiences to dream, dare, and do more to transform the world in which we live, and address injustice where they see it.
NMAJH just celebrated our fourth annual Freedom Seder. This is an intentionally interfaith, interethnic visitor experience of 300 or so dining together, with another several hundred participating by livestream video. Everyone in attendance participates in the program through music and storytelling that encourages real dialogue about the contemporary meanings and struggles around notions of freedom. It ends with a stirring version of Od yavo shalom aleinu.
Now, Ed Rothstein and, to be fair, many others, might assert that this is pandering - privileging the American narrative over the Jewish narrative. But Jewish museums can, and should, be catalysts for community writ large. It is interesting that as an international community we think most about the importance of museums and historic sites during conflict and war, and the importance - symbolic and otherwise - of their preservation or destruction. After the Russian Revolution, the Russians proclaimed that all historic monuments were to be protected. Conversely, we witnessed the recent tragic destruction of religious and historic sites in Iraq and Syria. The good guys and the bad guys understand that the evidence of history is central to the spirit, pride, and continuity of people.
We need museums, and Jewish communal support for Jewish museums, because we need to experience collective history to see how the past resurfaces in the present in order to remain civilized in the future. "Societies build these institutions because they authenticate the social contract. They are collective evidence that we were here," and continue to be.
 Joni Mitchell, "Big Yellow Taxi," 1970
 Edward Rothstein, "The Problem with Jewish Museums," Mosaic Magazine, February 1, 2016.
 Pew Research Center, "Portrait of Jewish Americans," 2013.
 An Israeli folksong about peace, often used referring to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and includes "salaam," the Arabic word for peace as well as "shalom."
 Elaine Heumann Gurian, "The Many Meanings of Objects in Museums," Daedalus Vol. 128, No. 3 (summer 1999).
Ivy Barsky has been the CEO and Gwen Goodman Director of the National Museum of American Jewish History, in Philadelphia, since June 2012. Previously she served as deputy director of New York's Museum of Jewish Heritage - A Living Memorial to the Holocaust.
- Special Message From CAJM
- The Council of American Jewish Museums stands with those who resist discrimination, religious intolerance, divisive language, unequal treatment of minorities, and restrictions that bar refugees.…
This is a critical time for our field. Our museums, which interpret Jewish history and culture for people of all backgrounds, fortify ideals of tolerance, diversity, and pluralism. At a moment when these ideals are publicly vulnerable and fiercely debated, the Council of American Jewish Museums stands with those who resist discrimination, religious intolerance, divisive language, unequal treatment of minorities, and restrictions that bar refugees.
CAJM's member institutions and colleagues serve as vital resources doing important work. They provide forums, programs, exhibitions, and spaces that welcome diverse publics and promote dialogue. Our field fosters mutual respect and provides expertise and insight to counter anti-Semitism, xenophobia, and hatred of others. Jewish museums provide historical and cultural perspectives that help inform the national conversation.
Still, our colleagues are facing new challenges. In the year ahead, we will present new opportunities for participation and feedback. In addition to our annual conference (March 19-21, 2017), we are planning a summit for interested members to address issues raised in the current cultural and political climate. We also want to hear about your programs, statements, and strategies for creating openness and inclusivity in your community. To submit examples, or to register your interest in attending the summit, please e-mail email@example.com.
We remain committed to advancing our missions as open, welcoming communal institutions, and to supporting our members in their essential work.
Board of Directors
Council of American Jewish Museums
- Anti-Semitic Incidents Reach Museums and Synagogues
- The New York Times has initiated a This Week in Hate column drawing attention to hate crimes and harassment around the country since the presidential election. This edition mentions an incident at the Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center.…
Hateful Threats Against a Jewish Blogger
This Week in Hate
By ANNA NORTH FEB. 9, 2017
Marc Yellin at home in Albuquerque, NM. Credit Adria Malcolm for The New York Times
This Week in Hate highlights hate crimes and harassment around the country since the election of President Trump.
Marc Yellin had gotten some political criticism during his six years of blogging about Jewish life in Albuquerque, but nothing like the messages he received last month.
The 66-year-old retired technical writer checked his email on the morning of Jan. 13, to find that someone had used the contact form on his website to submit two threatening messages containing anti-Semitic slurs.
"If you try to get the US involved in another war for Israel there are thousands of sleepers in the US who will shoot up your synagogues," one of the messages said.
In the contact form, the sender had entered the name William Pierce, the founder of a white nationalist organization who died in 2002.
Mr. Yellin was somewhat afraid when he read the messages, but mostly disgusted and disappointed. He wondered, "Have we come to this?"
After he recovered from the initial shock, Mr. Yellin contacted the Anti-Defamation League, which reported the threat to the F.B.I. and the Albuquerque police. Authorities are investigating the incident.
Mr. Yellin was not the only one in Albuquerque to receive an anti-Semitic threat in January. The Jewish Community Center of Greater Albuquerque was one of dozens of Jewish community facilities around the country to receive bomb threats last month. The facility was evacuated and police confirmed there was no bomb. The F.B.I. is investigating the bomb threats.
Anti-Semitic threats are unusual in Albuquerque, according to Suki Halevi, the New Mexico regional director of the Anti-Defamation League. "We've been hearing about it and reading about it happening in other places," she says, "and now these incidents have reached our community."
The A.D.L. is concerned about an increase in reported hate crimes and online harassment since the start of the presidential campaign. In New Mexico, the group has been working with Muslim and immigrants' rights groups to respond to and prepare for incidents of hate. The A.D.L. also offers training and online resources to help Jewish communities recognize suspicious activity and keep facilities safe.
"One of the goals of cyberharassment and threats of violence is to disrupt a community and cause fear," says Ms. Halevi. "When the community is prepared, it helps to stop that from happening."
For Mr. Yellin, one way to fight hate is to talk about it. A few weeks after he got the threatening messages, he wrote about them on his blog: "This blatant, open anti-Semitism must not be allowed to become the new normal."
He encourages others who have been threatened to make the incidents public if they feel safe doing so. "Nothing is going to change if people don't know," he says.
Here are some reports of hate crimes and harassment that have drawn public attention in recent days.
• On Jan. 30, members of a family in Orlando, Fla., discovered racist notes including swastikas on the windshields of three of their cars. One tire on each car was slashed. Family members believe they may have been targeted because one of them is an organizer for Black Lives Matter.
• Anti-Muslim graffiti was discovered at a mosque in Roseville, Calif., on Jan. 31. Earlier in the month, a mosque in nearby Davis, Calif., was also vandalized.
• A swastika was found carved into a bench inside the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center in Skokie, Ill., on Feb. 1. Police are investigating the vandalism as a hate crime.
• Last weekend, a swastika and the word "Trump" were scrawled with chalk on a statue at Rice University in Houston. It was the third incident of vandalism on the campus in a month. Previously, vandals had written "Trump 2016" on a portion of the Berlin wall at the university, and placed white supremacist recruitment posters on campus.
• On Saturday, a window at a synagogue in Chicago, was broken and swastika stickers were placed on the front door. A man was arrested and charged with a hate crime in connection with the incident.
• During services at a synagogue in Las Vegas, on Saturday, a swastika was carved into an outside wall.
• On Sunday, a family in Peyton, Colo., discovered that their home had been vandalized with dog feces, eggs and about 50 pieces of paper bearing hate messages and racial slurs. The F.B.I. is investigating the incident as a hate crime.
- The Oregon Jewish Museum Has A New Home And Big Dreams
- Listen to an interesting news story about the relocation of the Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education: http://bit.ly/2k4frHf…
Listen to an interesting news story about the relocation of the Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education: http://bit.ly/2k4frHf
- Dazzling, Old Lamps
- A historical look at three special menorahs and hanukkiahs from Jewish history—17th century Italy, and 19th century Germany and Iraq.…
Workshop of Joseph de Levis (?)
Italy, late 16th or early 17th century
This rare and elaborate Hanukkiah and a similar one in the collection of Congregation Emanu-El in New York were probably made from the same mold. Small bronze decorative art objects were popular in the Renaissance, and among those made exclusively for Jewish use were lamps with the distinctively Jewish feature of containers for eight lights.
A scene illustrating a dramatic moment in the story of Judith and Holofernes is the focus of the bronze relief back panel of the lamp. Having just decapitated Holofernes, Judith holds the knife with her right hand as her left is about to drop his head into a sack held open by her kneeling maidservant. The fabric of Holofernes's tent is draped above Judith's head, and his bed linens fall in disheveled swirls, reflecting a similar composition in one of Botticelli's two paintings of the subject.
This event is rendered in a fully dramatic and detailed scene just as it is described in the book of Judith from the postbiblical writings of Apocrypha. More frequently found in later lamps from Italy and Germany is Judith as a single iconic figure. Since the Middle Ages, Jews had associated Judith with courage and triumph of the Maccabean heroes of the Hanukkah story. The Italians of the Renaissance also idealized Judith as a figure emblematic of both justice and virtue. The statue at the top of the lamp, which may represent a Hasmonean priest of the lineage of Judah the Maccabee, may have been attached at a later time.
The style of this lamp is typical of the Renaissance. Characteristic artistic motifs include masks of both putti and bearded men, scrolls, angels, and family coats of arms. The two flanking figures near the top of the lamp are a clear reference to similar reclining statues by Michelangelo in the Medici Chapel. Scholars propose that the Joseph de Levis family workshop, which may have produced this lamp, was Jewish, which would confirm the existence of Jewish artists working in Italy during the Renaissance. The artist of this lamp was a particularly skilled metalsmith and sculptor whose innovative artistry enabled him to create one of the supreme aesthetic expressions of Jewish art for his own time as well as for centuries to come.
Johann Heinrich Philip Schott Sons
Frankfurt am Main, Germany, c. 1850
The Rothschild family crest is emblazoned on the base of this classic and formally beautiful silver candelabra. This definitive identification mark in the form of the family's baronial escutcheon provides the provenance so rare in most objects of Judaica. The lamp's ownership can be attributed to Baron Wilhelm Karl von Rothschild and Baroness Hannah Mathilde von Rothschild, well-known German Jews. The coat of arms was granted to the Rothchilds, along with baronial status, by the imperial decree to the family in 1822. The quartered shield consists of: upper left, and eagle, in reference to the imperial coat of Austrian coat of arms; upper right and lower left, an arm grasping five arrows, a family symbol indicating the unity of the five Rothschild brothers; lower right, a lion rampant; center, another shield with the medieval funnel-like hat worn by Jews. The five roundels in the crest's crown refer to the various branches of the family. The exquisitely cast silver unicorn and lion, which stand rampant to protect the family crest and its heritage, are fully sculptural forms representative of the British branch of the family.
The maker's marks on the lamp are clearly stamped and easily readable: Schott indicates the workshop of Johann Heinrich Philip Schott Sons, and the hallmark has a 13 surmounted by a crown, a mark used in Frankfurt in the mid-nineteenth century.
The history of this object, which can be traced for over a hundred years (that itself is unusual in the collecting of Jewish ceremonial art), represents both the heights and the depths of the modern Jewish experience. This magnificent neoclassical Hanukkiah is thought to have been a wedding present from Baron Wilhelm Karl von Rothschild to his wife. When Frankfurt's Jewish museum was established in 1901, the year in which the baron died, it was named the Rothschild Museum. The lamp became a part of this museum's collection, and it was included in an important article published in 1937 by art historians Hermann Gundersheimer and Guido Schoenberger, who worked at the Rothschild Museum after being discharged by the Nazis from their secular posts in the early 1930s.
During the war, the Frankfurt History Museum preserved collections of the Rothschild Museum and the Frankfurt synagogues, including this menorah. After the war, the Jewish Cultural Reconstruction Inc., founded in 1947 to recover and redistribute Nazi-looted and heirless property, entrusted Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio, among like institutions, with this and other museum-quality objects of Judaica. The menorah came west to Los Angeles when Hebrew Union College's entire collection moved to the Skirball Museum in 1972. This piece stands as testimony to the value of the Jewish tradition for which it was made as well as the tenacity of that tradition, which preserves and transmits its values to future generation.
Baghdad, Iraq, 19th century
This rare heirloom of Iraqi Jewish heritage is an exuberant work of folk art illustrative of the symbols and decorations utilized and adapted by Jews from the traditions of a country in which they had lived for centuries. When lit, this Hanukkiah would have had a dazzling presence, with a hot yellow glow from the brass and vigorous reflections of the flames contained in the glass cups, which would hang suspended from the brass collars. The cups were filled with water, and oil was floated on top to fuel the wicks. Flickering and mysterious shadows would be cast by this lamp because of its construction, materials, and the clear outlines of its shape and symbols. The lighting of this lamp could have produced a dramatic and emotional atmosphere conducive to spiritual and religious ritual.
The most striking features on this lamp are the hamsas, or hand shapes, (the term hamsa refers to both the Hebrew and Arabic words for "five"). Throughout North Africa and the Middle East, the hand image was invested with amuletic power to ward off the evil eye-the forces of darkness and bad luck. The fact that five hamsas can be found here underscores the profound belief in the number's potency.
Another practice Middle Eastern Jews employed to protect themselves from the evil eye was the use of a biblical quote. In Genesis 49:22 there is a play on the phrase "Joseph is a fruitful vine, a fruitful vine by a fountain," because the Hebrew word for "fountain" also means "eye." That phrase is inscribed here on the large central hamsa.
The stylized birds and the crescent moons with stars are typical motifs for Hanukkah lamps and other Jewish ceremonial objects from Islamic countries. The tracery line forming the frame of the lamp draws a mosquelike building with a dome supported by five columns, providing an Islamic-influenced counterpart to the phenomenon found elsewhere in Jewish art of creating Hanukkah lamps styled after architecture to symbolize the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem.
Excerpted from the book © The Art of Hanukkah by Nancy M. Berman, Universe Publishing, an imprint of Rizzoli New York, 2016.
Nancy M. Berman was the curator of the Hebrew Union College Skirball Museum from 1972 to 1977. She subsequently became director of the museum in 1977. Her career in Jewish art and culture began at the Jewish Museum in New York, where she was assistant curator of the Judaica Department.
- Lost diary of tortured Mexican ‘converso’ features in early-American Jewish exhibit
- Manuscript by Luis de Carvajal was missing for 75 years until spotted by a keen-eyed collector. Now it joins others on display at the New-York Historical Society…
NEW YORK - In the closing years of the 16th century, as the Holy Inquisition reached across the ocean to Spanish and Portuguese territories, Luis de Carvajal the Younger was put on trial by the Mexican Inquisition, suspected of being a Jew. The Spanish-born de Carvajal (1567-1596) was from a family of "converso" Jews who had converted to Catholicism. He was living in Mexico, where his uncle served as the governor of Leon.
Under torture, de Carvajal betrayed more than 120 people who continued to practice their faith in secret. He and many of his family were burned at the stake.
Long a familiar name to scholars, de Carvajal kept a meticulously written diary, penned under the pseudonym Joseph Lumbroso. While there were some transcriptions, the original diary disappeared in 1939 from the National Archives of Mexico.
Earlier this year, though, a keen-eyed collector spotted the de Carvajal diary at auction and helped orchestrate its return.
Now, for the first time in more than 75 years, the newly recovered memoir - measuring only four inches by three inches - along with other de Carvajal religious manuscripts, are on view as part of "The First Jewish Americans: Freedom and Culture in the New World," a stunning and eye-opening exhibit that runs through February 26, 2017, at the New-York Historical Society.
The exhibit, which boasts more than 170 objects including rare early portraits, drawings, paintings, maps, books, documents and ritual objects, traces the arrival of Jews in the New World and sheds light on the ways in which Jews were influenced by and left an enduring mark on the emerging nation. A trio of de Carvajal's handwritten books are believed to be the earliest extant Jewish manuscripts from the Americas.
There's a common misconception that American Jewish history is a story of the middle-to-late 19th and early-20th centuries, says Debra Schmidt Bach, the historical society's curator of decorative arts.
"But there's a very rich history of American settlement and Jewish community in the Colonial period. They made very important inroads that paved the way," for later generations, Bach told The Times of Israel.
Much of the exhibit's material is from the collection of Leonard L. Milberg, a 1953 alumnus of Princeton University. Today, Milberg's alma mater houses a large portion of his collection. Last spring, the Princeton University Art Museum mounted a similar exhibit and published "By Dawn's Early Light," the essay-rich catalog with 75 full-color illustrations that accompanies the current show.
By drawing on its own extensive collection along with other sources, the New York Historical Society presents a fascinating visual historical narrative for this little-known but influential period in the emergence of Jewish life in America.
Milberg's ‘amazing find'
It was just a few months before the exhibit opened in late October when Milberg, a learned and savvy New York City collector, noticed the de Carvajal items listed in a catalog from Swann Auction Galleries.
"It was too good to be true. They must be either copies or forgeries," he recalled thinking at the time. He headed over to the gallery to get an up-close look at the manuscripts. "I thought they were extraordinary," he recalled in a phone conversation with The Times of Israel.
The gallery removed the items from its auction and over the next few days and weeks scholars examined the manuscripts and authenticated them as the originals that had disappeared. Through diplomatic channels, Milberg arranged the repatriation of de Carvajal's diary to the Mexican National Archives, which agreed to loan the manuscripts to the NYHS for the exhibit.
Milberg's recovery of the diary was remarkable, noted Bach. "It was an amazing find," she said.
The museum's conservation department digitized the fragile documents and donated copies of the folio to the Mexican government, Princeton University and to Brown University.
Jewish life from the Caribbean to New Amsterdam
The first section of the exhibit opens with the world of Jewish life in the Caribbean colonies. Even as late as the mid-18th century, there were more Jews in Curacao, Suriname and Jamaica than in all of North America, according to accompanying wall texts. A 1718 map shows the Jewish settlement of Suriname, founded in 1667. A rabbinical letter from 1767 certifies as kosher a shipment of food from Philadelphia to Barbados.
Several documents reveal the ways in which Jews found themselves on both sides of the issue of slavery, from Barbados to New York.
In the section on North America, the exhibit focuses on Jewish colonial life in New York, Philadelphia and Charleston, home to the largest Jewish community in North America until the 1830s.
Several items relate to New York's Congregation Shearith Israel, the first Jewish congregation in colonial North America, including a large Torah scroll, one of two burned by British soldiers during the Revolutionary War, and a beautifully illustrated ketubah, a Jewish wedding contract. A delicately crafted set of silver Torah finials (1775-1776) were made for the synagogue by Myer Myers, one of the top silversmiths of colonial America, who served as the congregation's president.
The Levy-Franks family, among early New York's most prominent Jewish families, is captured in a stunning series of six portraits by New York artist Gerardus Duyckinck I.
In the section on Philadelphia, there's an exquisite Thomas Sully portrait of Rebecca Gratz (1831), that calls attention to this influential Philadelphia-born Jewish woman, a forward-thinking innovator who initiated the creation of Jewish Sunday schools and the benevolent society for Jewish women.
Women, including Penina Moise (1797-1880), a Charleston poet who left her mark in both secular and Jewish circles, played a significant role in reforming religious practice tailored for American-born Jews. Her book of hymns for Charleston's Beth Elohim is on display, as is her portrait by Theodore Sidney Moise (1808-1885), her nephew.
An oil painting of the interior of Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim by Moise's contemporary, Solomon Nunes Carvalho (1815-1897), was made by the artist based entirely on memory of his childhood synagogue after it burned in 1838 in the city's devastating fire.
Carvalho was a pioneering daguerreotype photographer who accompanied explorer John Fremont on his 1853 fifth westward expedition across the Rockies. His bestselling chronicle about the expedition is on view along with other paintings related to the trip.
A new documentary, "Carvalho's Journey," by Steven Rivo, chronicles the little known story. A later painting, "Abraham Lincoln and Diogenes" (1865), owned by the Rose Art Museum at Brandeis University, makes a rare appearance.
The closing section describes an age of experimentation in intellectual and artistic expression by Jewish Americans that includes a wealth of plays, poetry, religious texts and musical compositions, many part of Milberg's collection. There's also a large portrait of Uriah Phillips Levy, who rose to the rank of Commodore in the US Navy, along with his sword and scabbard. Levy is credited with persuading Congress to end the practice of flogging in the Navy.
There are two paintings by the renowned 19th century artist Camille Pissarro. The impressionist artist, whose mother was Jewish, was born on St. Thomas. Both paintings depict scenes from his native Caribbean island.
For his part, Milberg said that he hopes the exhibit brings to light the ways in which Jews were part of America from its beginnings.
"I wanted to show that Jews were an important part of the fabric of America," he said.
Two related programs are scheduled at The New-York Historical Society. Monday, January 30: Jews in America: From the Colonial Period to the Civil War, with Dale Rosengarten, Rabbi Meir Y. Soloveichik, and Louis Mirrer. Wednesday, February 15: Jews and the Making of Modern America, with Abraham Foxman
- Pictures At A Shul Exhibition
- A reflection on a feature author rarely encountered in other shuls but one that others might want to emulate: that is, a full-fledged gallery on the premises that functions as a mini-museum.…
What was it Candide ultimately decided? "We must cultivate our garden," he declared, rejecting the superficial philosophy of his mentor Professor Pangloss that "all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds." After our brutal election campaign and the resulting bitter disappointment many of us suffered, I've come to agree with Candide that it's time to put aside false hopes and focus on the things that are personally important to us. We, too, need to "cultivate our garden" by paying attention to matters close to home as well as to the broader causes we may care about. Along those lines, I've been thinking about synagogue life and, specifically, life in my synagogue.
This is not a puff piece for that synagogue, Or Zarua, a Conservative congregation on the Upper East Side (well, maybe a little puff), but a reflection on a feature I have rarely encountered in other shuls but one that others might want to emulate: that is, a full-fledged gallery on the premises that functions as a mini-museum. Ours is not a large community-membership hovers at around three hundred families and our "gallery" space is actually our social hall, where a Kiddush is held every Shabbat after services. Within the constraints of that room, about 18-by-40 feet, we have changing exhibitions twice a year that draw crowds of viewers - congregants, artists, collectors, and an assortment of friends.
"This has been a bonding agent for the congregation," says Bobbi Coller, the congregant and curator behind the program, "and also a means of engaging people who come to our synagogue for the first time." Even more, the program conveys "Jewish culture, Jewish values, and Jewish history," often in ways people may not have been aware of before. Coller holds a Ph.D. in art history, has curated traveling exhibitions - including several for the Smithsonian Institution - and among other activities, co-teaches a course on art and medicine with her physician husband, Barry Coller, at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mt. Sinai.
So, yes, she is a professional. But in our shul, everything (except for our rabbinic leadership) is handled by volunteers - congregants, rather than a cantor, chant from the Torah and lead services - and Bobbi, along with her 12 committee members, donates her skills to the project. Unlike her, they are not trained art historians but individuals devoted, as she is, to spreading Jewish education and culture. Aiding them in their venture is graphic designer Rudi Wolff, not a member of our congregation but a good friend to it. Rudi designs the text panels, arranges the boxes that display objects, and casts his artist's eye over every exhibit. "Everything is framed and carefully installed," Bobbi says. "I want this to look like a museum Gallery, with a capital ‘G'."
And it does. There have been 18 exhibitions over the past years, most with a gala opening and artist presentation. Here is a sampling of shows:
A display of micro-calligraphy images from the Five Books of Moses by the Israeli artist Leon Azoulay. In this uniquely Jewish art form, the artist uses the letters of a Hebrew text to form shapes and figures. From a distance the tiny Hebrew letters can barely be seen, so to enhance viewers' understanding of the process and the images, in this exhibition a magnifying glass was hung from each panel.
"Our Precious Legacy," a kind of Jewish "Antiques Roadshow," featured objects of family or historic significance contributed by congregation members. Thus the shears, buttons, and homemade tefillin a congregant had received from his grandfather, once a tailor for the tsar's army, later owner of a tailor shop on the Lower East Side. From a congregant born in a Displaced Persons (DP) camp after World War II, an army regulation cup given to his parents by American soldiers as a gift at his birth. Each object a piece of Jewish history; each a piece of material culture.
"From Yankel to Yankee," an exhibition about the Yiddish theater in America, emphasized its role in Americanizing new Jewish immigrants, as did "Bagels, Babka, and Balabustas," featuring early American Jewish cookbooks.
Currently on view are paintings and drawings by the artist Mark Podwal whose works and lavishly illustrated new book, "Reimagined: 45 Years of Jewish Art," evoke the joys and sorrows of Jewish life over time. This is our lead-in to the Chanukah celebration coming soon.
Our congregation has been fortunate in having creative and dedicated people organizing its gallery projects. But there are vast resources of talent in every congregation just waiting to be tapped. Our garden as Jews goes back to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, and the potential for uncovering the visual riches in our tradition is unlimited. We need only resolve to take on that task.
Francine Klagsbrun's latest book is "The Fourth Commandment: remember the Sabbath Day." Her biography of Golda Meir will be published in the fall of 2017.
- MuseumNext opens highlighting the challenges ahead
- MuseumNext has opened in New York with topics on redefining the role of museums, changing audiences and museums in schools.…
The session on ‘Redefining the role of museums in a time of urgent need' focused on how the public understands pressing issues, including the environment, human health, climate change, energy and bioterrorism.
The session covered the role of natural history museums in educating the public and helping people ‘connect the dots' of complex natural phenomena.
Speaking at a session titled ‘Next narratives: changing audiences need new stories', industry experts said museums have to continually develop to meet the needs of different audiences in a changing society.
Hunter O'Hanian, who is executive director, chief executive at the College Art Association in New York, told delegates at the conference that museums have had to address the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community, as same-sex themes only represented 1-2% of museum portfolios.
He said: "We have to re-shift who we are as institutions to make everyone welcome. Our job is to represent the constituencies we serve."
Also speaking at the session was Christy Coleman, American Civil War Museum chief executive, who oversaw the merger of the Museum of the Confederacy with the American Civil War Center in Richmond, Virginia in 2013.
She told in the audience: "History is not made in our institutions, it's made on the ground in what is remembered and how. My job is difficult in changing the narrative: what happened; what we pass on; what we choose to remember and how that makes us feel. We can challenge and raise the bar to examine the narrative.
"How do we convince our communities to even take a second look? How do we challenge and change narrative? How do we begin to have these conversations?"
Also highlighted during the session was the importance of having a strategic plan.
Coleman said that merging two institutions initially caused anger. She said: "We can shoot for consensus or shoot for change. It's problematic. We lost 40% of our membership over 18 months. Our numbers are coming back with new people who like what they are seeing. We do not need to be timid anymore."
Also speaking during the session were Boon Hui Tan, vice president of Global Arts and cultural programmes director of the Asia Society Museum, Colin Weil, Congregation B'nai Jeshurun executive director, and Melissa Martens Yaverbaum, Council of American Jewish Museums executive director.
Hui Tan said: "We are living in times that are changing. We are a product of our times. There should be a time when the [museum] director commits hari-kari. Society is so diverse. Organisations need to last beyond us."
Also during the first day was a session ‘Museums in schools - how one school is seeking to build a bridge for their community'. The goal is to turn a high school campus into a living museum.
The three-day event will also be covering topics that include personalising the visitor experience, working with veterans, and teens and technology.