How Can we Advocate for the Urgent Needs of Jewish Museums in the United States?

Museum at Eldridge Street via Facebook

By Michael S. Glickman

In our time, on our watch, “thousands of Jewish nonprofits – synagogues, schools, camps, JCCs, Hillels, human services organizations and others – [are] cutting back projects, laying off staff, pivoting to online programming and confronting the very real prospect of shutting down, perhaps permanently,” The New York Jewish Week reports. 

Jewish museums are also suffering in acute, specific ways – but their particular needs, and critical importance, often go unmentioned. UNESCO and the International Council of Museums project that in the wake of the pandemic, one in eight museums worldwide may never reopen. The American Alliance of Museums foresees that one-third of American museums are at significant risk of closing permanently by next fall. Still, when funders launch new initiatives or pool resources to support vital causes, nearly every one bypasses Jewish museums.

With our continued inattention, we betray our communities. jMUSE recently conducted a study of the 30 largest Jewish museums in this country (with museum size determined by budget, collection, and visitation). It is worth noting that these museums reside in diverse communities that also collectively represent a significant percentage of North America’s Jewish population. In the last full year before COVID-19, they reached more than 2 million visitors (including more than 700,000 students). Their annual budgets totaled over $165 million, and they contributed to local economies and employed nearly 1,000 people. Against the backdrop of their recent histories, and considering the significance of their missions, it is staggering to think that some of these museums – located across 18 States – now face the threat of permanent closure.

Upon reviewing all publicly available and relevant data, we concluded that communities across the U.S. rely on Jewish museums to serve as the backbone of Jewish cultural engagement. This was true across the board, despite great discrepancies in the different museums’ missions, mandates, and impact.

Even beyond recognizing the unique resources that Jewish museums offer, people across the country have indicated a deeper level of trust in the content presented by such institutions. The National Awareness, Attitudes, and Usage Study found that “people consider museums to be highly credible sources of information,” an indicator that has steadily increased over the past few months. In analyzing the study, Colleen Dilenschneider notes, “the credibility of museums as trusted sources of information matters, because it contributes to their reputation – a driver of attendance – and their roles as leaders in our local, national, and global communities.”

Widespread public trust in museums opens a multitude of opportunities to accomplish important educational work. In a time of rising antisemitism, our museums introduce Jewish history, invite all to explore American Jewish experience, and advocate for and provide Holocaust education. They present cultural programming that bridges divides, speaks to common humanity, and challenges us all to elevate our understanding. Jewish museums offer some of our best chances to combat ignorance, complacency, and inaction. The American Jewish community neglects them at our peril.

Michael S. Glickman is Founder & CEO of jMUSE, a philanthropic resource that brings together institutions, experts, and philanthropists to experiment with new ways to cultivate important ideas and innovative content. jMUSE.org.