Our Museum Problem


By Jonathan S. Tobin

Published January 23, 2008, issue of January 25, 2008.
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Ground was broken in September for a vastly expanded Museum of American Jewish History on Independence Mall in Philadelphia. What is now basically a one-room exhibit sharing space with the historic Congregation Mikveh Israel will soon be a multi-level complex that will stand as a major tourist attraction alongside Independence Hall, the Liberty Bell and the Constitution Center.

Creating this new museum was no easy task. It involved raising approximately $100 million, much of it from the Jewish community in Philadelphia, where, over the past several years, it has become the most popular local Jewish cause. It was also financed by donors from around the country, as well as by grants from the city, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and the federal government.

This enterprise is the latest example of the widespread growth of Jewish-themed museums in America. A couple of decades ago, the number of such museums was tiny. Today, it seems as if there is hardly a burg that isn’t sprouting some sort of exhibition hall commemorating the hardships and the triumphs of American Jewry. What lies behind this unprecedented development?

This is a heady time. The number of Jews in the Senate, the House of Representatives, the Supreme Court and, yes, even Major League Baseball bears witness to not only the achievements of individual Jews but the overwhelming acceptance of Jews by mainstream America. Indeed, the American Jewish community has become the wealthiest, most powerful and freest in the history of our people. It is, therefore, of little surprise that many are motivated to celebrate these achievements.

So what’s wrong with throwing ourselves a party and putting some of our material blessings into museums to fete our impressive record? Aren’t we simply memorializing and honoring the struggles we’ve encountered on our journey?

That’s exactly the sentiment that organizers and marketers behind the museum movement are selling. Given the fact that so many Jewish pantheons are springing up around the country like opera houses in the 19th-century American West, this message has proven to be a major selling point to donors.

But the decision of so many communities and philanthropists to invest in museums is, in truth, profoundly troubling. Museums, even those that aim to educate and enlighten visitors rather than merely impress them, are static institutions. Try as they might, they cannot help build a community. They can only monumentalize it.

Museums will do little, if anything, to address the current problems of American Jewry, especially the dilemma of how a community that is rapidly assimilating can survive as a cohesive force. They are, instead, monuments to our vanity — not so much to that of the individuals who donate their time and resources, but to the pride of American Jewry as a whole. However, given the internal and external threats to our very existence, this is not the time to indulge our impulse for self-congratulation.

There are things we can do to promote Jewish identity. Making Jewish camps more accessible for larger numbers of Jewish kids is one. Funding trips to Israel, as the Birthright Israel program has done, is another. But the best answer of all remains the hardest sell and the most expensive: day schools. No other institution or resource does a better job of inculcating Jewish values, faith and identity. However, the cost of tuition at these schools, which in most places rivals the cost of elite private schools, has made them largely off limits for most of the Jewish middle class. Raising sufficient funds to make day schools affordable for all Jewish families is the only logical choice.

The failure to emphasize Jewish education will directly impact the ability of American Jewry to continue to maintain itself in anything like the numbers or the strength that was its hallmark in the 20th century. If current trends persist, the museum planners will be setting aside room for exhibits documenting the decline of the community that they are doing so much to laud.

It’s not only that these museums are tremendously expensive to build. They will also be costly to maintain. Communities around the country will have to cope with the problem of raising sizeable sums on a yearly basis to continue to keep the doors of these places open. Like any other local agency, the museums will eventually become one more hungry mouth for the community to feed and make it even less likely that funds will be available for the massive increases in education allocations that are needed.

Museum organizers and consultants operate as if the amount of money available to Jewish causes is infinite; it is not. Giving priority to the essential causes, rather than those that are merely attractive, is imperative. It should be noted that the donors to these museums have good intentions and are, in some instances, the same people who give something to Jewish education. But when museums become the hot philanthropic ticket, more important causes get short shrift. Museum backers may well say that they do not oppose education. But they are voting with their money for the past, not the future.

What will history say about a community that was prepared to spend scarce money building museums to glorify its past rather than supporting schools that could ensure its future? As more of these edifices rise in our cities, that is a question more Jews should be asking themselves.

Jonathan S. Tobin is executive editor of the Jewish Exponent in Philadelphia. The views expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the Jewish Exponent.

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