A New Jewish Energy in Tel Aviv: Beit Hatfutsot Renovation to Shift Focus to Story of Jewish Peoplehood

Beit HatfutsotBy Maayan Jaffe
eJewish Philanthropy

With every new social study that publishes about the modern Jewish community, there is a growing fear of a disjointed and sometimes estranged Jewish people.

“We need a new Jewish energy. We need to celebrate the wholeness of Jewish history,” says Ambassador Alfred Moses, co-chair of the International Advisory Board of Beit Hatfutsot in Tel-Aviv.

Moses was part of discussion about how to transform the current Beit Hatfutsot into a center for Jewish peoplehood, a place that would be pluralistic, inclusive, would focus on our common Jewish heritage, values and language, and where Jewish would not be a religion, but a people.

Synagogue Gallery Beit Hatfutsot“We want to give every person a chance to place him/herself on the Jewish map,” says Irina Nevzlin, chair of Beit Hatfutsot’s board of directors.

The “we” that Nevzlin is referring to is Beit Hatfutsot. She, along with a team of other top lay and professional leaders, is relaunching Tel Aviv’s Beit Hatfutsot, the somewhat shabby Diaspora Museum on the city’s university campus, as the Museum of the Jewish People at Beit Hatfutsot. The new Beit Hatfutsot will be “mercaz Am Yisrael, a center of the Jewish people, and a place where through multiple platforms and interactive tools one can discover the collective Jewish story … and his or her place in that narrative,” explained Moses.

The idea for the original Beit Hatfutsot began in the 1960s, according to Aluf Eitan Ben Eliyahu, a retired Major General in the Israel Defense Forces who is co-chair of the International Board of Governors with Moses. Zionist Nahum Goldmann, in his role as head of the World Jewish Congress, brought the idea to Israeli officials who jumped on it. The museum was opened in the 1970s to great success. But 50 years later, says Eliyahu, the program has started to deteriorate.

“We needed to reinvest in it,” Eliyahu says.

Beit Hatfutsot Synagogue GalleryPlans for a complete overhaul of Beit Hatfutsot began in 2007. According to Dan Tadmor, the CEO of Beit Hatfutsot, the project should be completed by 2018 and cost upwards of $100 million. Thus far, the team has raised $55 million with around $45 million still to go, says Tadmor. The Israeli government committed $18 million, the Nevzlin family, who has been supporting the museum for the last decade, infused upwards of $22 million into the pot as well. The rest has been raised through other private donations.

There are three aspects to the renovation. First, Beit Hatfutsot will launch a new online database giving access to its collection of more than 6 million genealogical records, as well as its extensive photo, music and other collections.

Further, the renovation will allow Beit Hatfutsot to expand its educational offering. Its International School for Jewish Peoplehood Studies will put a greater emphasis on online programs, thereby providing more and more Jewish institutions globally with learning opportunities focused on Jewish identity and connection.

Beit Hatfutsot Synagogue Gallery 1Of course, the biggest shift will be the re-designed Museum of the Jewish People, to open in two phases. Phase 1, to open in May 2016, will consist of a new 20,000 square feet wing and the launch of four new exhibits, two permanent and two temporary. These will include a refurbished 6,000-square-feet exhibition hall featuring true-to-scale models of famous synagogues from around the world; “Heroes”, a gallery that will tell the stories of Jewish heroes from Moses through Albert Einstein; a showcase of the life of Bob Dylan, in honor of his 75th birthday (temporary exhibit); and a special exhibition in honor of the 30th anniversary since Operation Moses, which brought the majority of Israel’s Ethiopian population to the homeland.

The museum is being designed by the renowned Patrick Gallagher, who told eJP that he has never worked on a project so unique that spans such a large stretch of history – from Biblical times to modern day. He says he is using a combination of environmental design, multimedia, film, collection, representative imagery and photography to accomplish the goal.

“We don’t just want an analog of Jewish history, but we want you to think about history from a personal perspective,” Gallagher explained. “Rather than starting from the beginning, we are going to start the story in the modern era. Visitors will be able to reflect on the Jewish world today and the impact that history has had on their current Jewish identities. This will not be an encyclopedic view of history.”

Beit Hatfutsot synagogue modelGallagher described the floor plan as open and says one could migrate from one area to another based on their interests or personal connection. On a visit, one could see the museum in its entirety or focus on one area. There will be a fast-track (surface discovery), as well as an opportunity for layered learning.

“This is the me generation, but we know that once we have them, they will want to spend the time,” says Gallagher.

The museum will be enhanced through a series of open questions, which will accompany attendees along their museum journey. The questions will challenge them to think about their role and how history fits into their lives, according to Gallagher.

Beit Hatfutsot synagogue model 2“I believe it will be important for any visitor to Israel to visit here first. That way, when they walk the streets, they will understand the people they meet from a very different perspective,” notes Gallagher. “What does it mean to be Jewish? What does it mean to be Israel? They will understand themselves and their Israel experience in a very different way.”

Nevzlin called on donors in Israel and abroad to partner with her on this mission. She says it is, “the responsibility of the current generation of donors to build for the future. The most urgent thing from my point of view is giving people a chance to connect and understand who we are. … We have the ability to tell the story right now, before we lose a generation of Jews.”

Photos courtesy Beit Hatfutsot