Universalism in Jewish Museums Yields More Similarity to Jewish Communal Life, Not Difference

By Jillian Weyman

[Masters students at the Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion Zelikow School of Jewish Nonprofit Management write theses or capstone projects involving original research about topics of interest to Jewish organizations. eJewish Philanthropy is highlighting some of their findings in the form of short articles with links to their theses on the Berman Jewish Policy Archive.]

In a recent essay from Mosaic Magazine titled “The Problem with Jewish Museums,” museum critic Edward Rothstein claims that “many Jewish American museums are more preoccupied with the freedom of Jews to become American, than with the freedom of Jews to remain fully Jewish.” To Rothstein, the lack of emphasis on Jewish particularism represents a danger to Jewish museums’ relevance now and in the future. As part of my Masters thesis, I explored Jewish museums and exhibitions in Los Angeles, and I uncovered very different results. While I did find universalism to be a common thread, I saw this not as a detriment, but ultimately as a benefit to their success and sustainability.

My thesis, for Hebrew Union College’s Zelikow School of Jewish Nonprofit Management, looked at Jewish museums and exhibitions from an organizational perspective. I interviewed professionals at four Jewish museums: the Skirball Cultural Center, the Museum of Tolerance, the LA Museum of the Holocaust, and the Zimmer Children’s Museum, as well as two temporary exhibitions at non-Jewish museums: the Jews in the LA Mosaic exhibition at the Autry and the Light & Shadows exhibition at the Fowler Museum at UCLA. I found that these museums and exhibitions serve an important and unique role of telling aspects of the Jewish story to the general public. Other nonprofits bring Jews into dialogue with other groups or advocate for Jewish policy concerns. But museums are uniquely positioned to explain Judaism, Jews, and Jewish history to the general public. The universal elements of operation are not just important to these museums’ success, they are critical.

Among the four Jewish museums I researched, I found commonalities in universalism among mission, target audience, and funding sources. All four aim to fulfill missions that extend beyond the Jewish community. The Skirball is the only one that even mentions “Jewish” in their mission statement, but even the Skirball’s leadership acknowledges that their work serves and impacts the greater community. Leaders from each of the museums acknowledged that Jewish visitors are among target audiences, though they also work to attract and engage the general public. All of the museums identified their institutions as cultural and/or educational spaces, and as a result, all of them take advantage of the opportunity to fundraise both within and outside of the Jewish community.

In terms of what is particularly Jewish among these four Jewish museums, there is commonality among their founding, values, and professional and lay leadership. All four were founded by Jews and were historically grounded in Jewish values that still permeate their messaging and operations today. The professional leaders (CEOs and Executive Directors) of these four museums personally identify as Jewish, and all of them have identified as Jewish communal professionals either to some extent currently or at some point in their professional careers. Similarly, the boards of these four museums are all somewhat, if not entirely, comprised of individuals who identify as Jewish.

It has become increasingly complicated for Jewish organizations to define their Jewishness, and Jewish museums share in that struggle. The Jewishness of Jewish museums originally came from their collections and displays. Historically, in object-centered institutions, content was primarily Judaica and other objects easily identifiable within Jewish religion, history, and culture. As experience, peoplehood, and community became more prominent in the stories Jewish museums told, they came to incorporate more universal themes. Other Jewish organizations, such as Jewish Community Centers and Jewish social service agencies, also serve wider audiences beyond the Jewish community and are more universally oriented. They face similar questions around which elements of their organizations define their Jewishness, whether it be content, founding values, or the makeup of their leadership (to name a few). Jewish museums share this experience of being more universally oriented with other Jewish organizations, and that is important and necessary for Jewish communal vitality. As a result, I understand Jewish museums to be not just museums, but Jewish organizations, and I feel there is potential for these institutions and their Jewish leaders (both professional and lay) to become more consistently active and present at the table for larger Jewish communal conversations.

Jillian Weyman has interned at the LA Museum of the Holocaust, the Zimmer Children’s Museum, the Museum of Tolerance, and other Jewish nonprofits, and she is about to receive a Master of Arts in Jewish Nonprofit Management from Hebrew Union College’s Zelikow School of Jewish Nonprofit Management and a Master of Public Administration degree from the University of Southern California. Her thesis can be found here.