Why Inclusivity was Key in Building the Largest Jewish Museum in the World

By Rachel Lithgow

There are all kinds of buzz words in the Jewish world, some we need to repeat over and over again, some better left to the “dustbin of history.” In fact, in January of this year, eJP actually published an excellent article on Words to Avoid – 2019 Edition which included “Guys” (seriously, people still use that word?) “Stakeholder” (I mean, aren’t we ALL stakeholders?) and my personal favorite “Progressive” (which could mean anything to anyone in any community … there are progressives on the far right and far left).

One word that bears repeating in our book is “Inclusivity.” True, it sounds like jargon at first, but look deeper. While the word is defined as the practice or policy of including people who might otherwise be excluded or marginalized, such as those who have physical or mental disabilities and members of minority groups is a recent phenomenon in a universal Jewish vocabulary, it has been evolving in the feminist lexicon, in education, and in the Museum and cultural worlds simultaneously. Essentially, it identifies that these forms of discrimination are related to all people in various forms of social stratification, such as class, race, sexual orientation, age, religion, creed, disability and gender. In the Jewish world, there could not be better time to explore this topic and why is it so important to include its premise in as many areas of Jewish life and philanthropy as possible.

On April 30 of 2020, The Museum of the Jewish People at Beit Hatfutsot (MJP) will open the largest Jewish Museum in history. For years, Jewish Museums were based on themes (The Holocaust, Tolerance) or geography (the Jews of ____ – insert local community) or a very specific event dedicated to one moment in time (The Jewish Ghetto of ____ in the year ____ ). What about the Whole Picture? All denominations, all Jews, all experiences under one roof? Where has this been on the radar and why is it important?

The golden thread that unites all Jewish people; whether you are affiliated, or if you identify with a specific community, Sephardic, Ashkenazi, Queer, Haredi, a Jew of color, and everyone in between who may not fit into one of the categories we have created to box in our community, exists. Actually, it isn’t simply one thread, it is multiple threads. The Jewish Religion, People, or way of life (as one defines Judaism typically) is multifaceted, and all threads that make up the 14,511,000 Jews that live on planet earth today (a number as of 2018) make up only .2% of the world’s population. We are an infinitesimal group on this planet, yet we overproduce in areas of science, art, culture, cuisine, literature, advocacy, social justice and more. Celebrating all these threads was the number one priority as MJP embarked on the journey toward recreating a classic institution, because we could not do it any other way.

Meeting Jews on their level, to touch the points of interest that have meaning to them; be it ethnicity, geography, genealogy or even food is, we believe, the key in creating a strong, unified global Jewish community. So the question on some people’s minds as you read this may be: How did the MJP wrap its arms around such a universal group of subjects? It’s a good question and it has a few startlingly interesting answers.

  1. We listened. A listening tour of the Jewish world, Jewish Museums, leaders, and commissioned studies provided a lot of information which we took seriously. We don’t want to alienate ANY group, so hearing what as many ethnic, religious, and cultural groups had to say was priceless. It wasn’t easy, it wasn’t cheap, but it had to be done in order to embark on the journey.
  2. We partnered. Too often in the Jewish world, we operate our institutions in silos. Our goal was to break down those silos as much as possible. We began by providing all of our digital content through the five largest Jewish databases in the world, free online to all who want access to the information. This has allowed us to share, to listen and to create content that breaks down the barriers put in place. We live increasingly in a society with no geographic or informational boundaries. If more institutions operated this way, we would truly have one of the strongest universal archives in the world.
  3. We asked. My aunt Marcia was fond of the expression “You don’t ask, you don’t get.” In the case of the MJP, we asked for a lot from people and places, and we received a lot from those that responded. We asked questions like: “Why can’t we create an app that personalizes the Museum for each visitor?” “Why can’t we co-create exhibition and programming with other institutions?” “Why can’t we build 66,000 sq feet of exhibition space that will incorporate cutting edge technology?”
  4. We embraced the digital. So many organizations discuss the “digital” realm and its importance. However, it was important for us not to create technology for technology’s sake. It had to value and enhance the visitor experience, not be the experience. We have created online and in-house digital projects, programs, exhibitions, and platforms that enhance and connect our visitors and plug them into the larger Jewish world on their own terms using MJP as their entry point.
  5. We decided that change was good. Too many Jewish cultural institutions are afraid of change. Afraid to alienate donors, afraid to upset a board that is used to how things have always been done, or simply afraid to conflict with their definition of mission. The truth is, when you are actually totally committed to the mission, making changes that include Jewish people and Jewish history of all stripes was much easier than anticipated. We believed that the more Jews of all backgrounds became involved, the better we would be in the long run, and the larger appeal we would have to our visitors; both Jews and non Jews alike.

The road was long in creating a truly inclusive museum that is comprehensive and wholistic. However, as we glide toward our finish line, we are convinced that this project, over ten years in the making, will pave the way for Inclusivity to become more than a buzzword, but in fact, for this concept to become commonplace in a world wide Jewish context.

Rachel Lithgow is the Executive Vice President of the the Museum of the Jewish People, Beit Hatfutsot International.