Are Museums The Next Frontier of Outreach?

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On Sept. 30, several hundred people gathered at a construction site at Fifth and Market Streets in Philadelphia to celebrate the groundbreaking on a new $150 million museum devoted to American Jewish history, according to the (Philadelphia) Jewish Exponent.

The National Museum of American Jewish History is just one of several ambitious Jewish museum projects opening around the country in the next few years. In San Francisco, the Contemporary Jewish Museum is reopening this spring in a dramatic 63,000-square-foot structure marked by a giant glass cube pirouetted on one corner. In Boston, plans are afoot for a $40 million New Center for Arts and Culture on the greenway covering the central artery. While nothing in the New Center’s mission explicitly says the museum will be Jewish, all of its previous events have been Jewish-themed and the project was first proposed by the Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston and the Jewish Community Centers of Greater Boston.

What does this have to do with intermarriage? Well, when I was at the American Jewish Press Association conference in San Francisco earlier this summer, I saw a presentation by some representatives of the Contemporary Jewish Museum. They discussed the high levels of intermarriage and low levels of affiliation among Jews in San Francisco. In their research they found that Jews were looking for a non-threatening, non-religiously oriented, non-exclusivist and yet still Jewish venue to take their non-Jewish partners and friends. One of the primary goals of the new museum, the representatives said, was to provide that space.

I don’t know much about the initial intentions behind the New Center for Arts and Culture, but previous events hosted by the Center (in its former home at Boston-area JCC) suggest they’re aiming for a similar target. In June, the New Center co-hosted Bloomsday Boston 2007 with Boston College, a Catholic university. Bloomsday celebrated Leopold Bloom, the Jewish-Irish protagonist of James Joyce’s Ulysses. Representatives from Boston’s Irish and Israeli consulates took part in readings, and a panel discussed similarities between the histories of Boston’s Jewish and Irish communities. It was an event simultaneously Jewish and ecumenical. Previous events hosted or co-sponsored by the Center have included a combined klezmer/swing concert, a presentation on Marc Chagall and something described as “an intimate music and poetry performance that explored the devotional traditions of 13th Century Sufi Muslim mystic, Jalaluddin Rumi and the 12th Century Jewish philosopher Abraham Ibn Ezra.” This kind of cross-cultural, non-exclusivist, non-religious programming seems tailor-made for interfaith couples.

In the coming years, I am excited to see if these museums open new doors for Jewish involvement among interfaith couples. Or, if they transform the very way we think about Jewish involvement.

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One thought on “Are Museums The Next Frontier of Outreach?

  1. People associate museums with dinosaurs, mummies and old paintings, and in the Jewish case, massacres. Not very forward looking.

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