On the scene

With renewed sense of urgency, L.A.’s Holocaust museum breaks ground on major expansion

New campus will allow the institution to double its capacity, educate 150,000 students each year

Under gray skies, with a large tent providing cover for guests from renegade raindrops, 200 people — among them 15 Holocaust survivors, civic officials and Jewish community leaders — gathered at Pan-Pacific Park in Los Angeles on Wednesday for a ceremonial groundbreaking on the expansion of the Holocaust Museum LA’s campus. 

Museum leadership says the expansion will double its capacity and enable it to engage 150,000 students in education about the Holocaust and against hate each year. It is expected to be completed in 2025. The museum is the oldest Holocaust museum in the United States and the first to have been founded by a group of survivors.

Attendees of the morning assembly schmoozed, noshed on bagels, pastries and coffee, while klezmer-inspired sounds from musical duo Mostly Kosher accompanied the hobnobbing, instrumentals of Yiddish songs, including “Bei Mir Bist Du Shein” (To Me You’re Beautiful), and Hebrew ones, including David Broza’s “Mitachat Lashamayim” (Under the Sky). Eight shovels stood at attention on the stage, and two boxes of hard hats sat outside the tent, all waiting for the actual groundbreaking and photo ops that would occur after the program’s conclusion.

At the event, Holocaust survivor Paul Kester recalled the “death and destruction, hopelessness and fear” in his childhood in Germany during and after Kristallnacht. 

“No country wanted us, the doors were closed… [now] at the age of almost 98, I again experience not fear, but concern, disgust and disappointment over a new wave of antisemitism,” he said.

“This time it is not government-organized. But it is not limited to acts by ignorant and confused individuals. It is pervasive among all levels of society, especially among this country’s intellectual elite, among the faculties and students of our best and greatest universities. But today, I can say times are different. We can fight this new antisemitism and the Holocaust Museum of Los Angeles is uniquely qualified to do this.”

The museum’s CEO, Beth Kean, said that the capital campaign had already raised $43 million, taking them to 80% of their goal.

“Today is a big celebration because this is four years in the making. And with the frightening surge in antisemitism that’s here locally and around the world, we’re really feeling a sense of urgency,” Kean told eJP as guests arrived at the event. “We are literally going to be changing the landscape of Los Angeles by building a world-class institution to ensure that the truth survives. And we’re doing this for our survivors, who are telling us every day, ‘don’t forget me,’ ‘don’t forget us.’ This expansion is about preserving their memories.”

The campus, designed by Israeli-born architect Hagy Belzberg, will be named for museum founder and survivor Jona Goldrich, after a lead gift from his daughters, Andrea Goldrich Cayton and Melinda Goldrich. It will feature expanded outdoor and indoor spaces, including galleries, classrooms, and a theater for screenings, talks, concerts, conferences and public programs. There will also be another dedicated theater for “Dimensions in Testimony,” a holographic exhibition featuring an interactive conversation with a virtual survivor. 

The Stanley and Joyce Black Family Foundation is funding a pavilion housing a Holocaust-era boxcar that was found outside the Majdanek death camp in Lublin, Poland. A gift from the S. Mark Taper Foundation will fund the on-site theater. In June 2022, the museum also received a $5 million gift from the Smidt Foundation, the largest-ever contribution from a family or foundation whose members are not descended from victims or survivors of the Holocaust.

Yaniv Tepper, vice-chairman of the museum’s board and the son of two of the museum’s original founders, told eJP that thanks to the expansion, more students will encounter real artifacts from the Holocaust or have a chance to talk to survivors. “It’s serving the right demographic at the moment in which education is really the thing that is probably most important for [curbing] antisemitism,” Tepper said.

A number of city and state lawmakers attended the groundbreaking, including several members of California’s Jewish Caucus, which worked with the Jewish Public Affairs Committee of California (JPAC) to secure $8.5 million of funding from the state budget for the museum’s expansion.

“Holocaust Museum LA has been providing crucial education to Jewish and non-Jewish students for so many years, and they currently don’t have the capacity to educate the number of students that want to be here and need to be here,” David Bocarsly, JPAC’s executive director, told eJP at the event. “And so to be able to expand their capacity to be able to bring in so many more of our future leaders will make a measurable difference on tolerance and combating hate and antisemitism for generations to come.”

When the program concluded, the photo ops began — followed soon after by a drizzle that became a downpour — but words from Kester were still hanging in the air. 

“I will continue to play my part in this as long as I can do it,” Kester said. “I think I speak on behalf of both survivors and the 6 million who perished when I say, ‘Thank you for keeping our story alive and for fighting for a better world.’”