Neutral territory? Jewish Museums and Cultural Centers Reach Out to Interfaith Families

By Cara Nissman


The couple spoke to a riveted crowd. The Jewish man stood next to his Indian wife and detailed how his family cast him out because he fell in love with a woman of a different faith.

The woman, dressed in a sari, shared her mixed feelings about raising their children Jewish.

“She said their children were in no way Indian,” said Francine Achbar, acting executive director of the New Center for Arts and Culture in Boston. “In an effort to merge with her husband’s culture, she had lost some of her own.”

This couple participated in the center’s recent Bloomsday Boston 2008 event Love Across Boundaries to celebrate the themes of love in James Joyce’s novel Ulysses.

photo of SF Jewish Museum
Bruce Damonte’s dramatic photo of the blue steel exterior of the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco.

By sharing the story of their love’s labors, the couple also contributed to a growing movement among Jewish cultural centers and museums to acknowledge the changing makeup of Jewish families.

This movement spans outreach efforts, exhibitions and events. Stakeholders have even scrutinized the potential names of new spaces to ensure people of all backgrounds feel safe visiting. While this push for universality may stem from economic pressures and the need to keep up attendance numbers, the larger implication is that more and more of these establishments are not just accepting, but also are embracing interfaith families.

“Museums are public spaces, not religious institutions,” said Lynda Bender, director of education and public programs for the Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage near Cleveland. “We offer a very different experience from a JCC or a temple. No rabbi is going to leap out and say, ‘Do you want to join the temple?’ The experience is much less fraught for intermarried couples who are hesitant about their situation.”

Still, one of the fundamental challenges for these institutions is finding interfaith families. Sending invitations to Reform synagogues and Unitarian Universalist churches only goes so far. Many museums and cultural centers are reaching out to public and private schools to raise awareness.

The Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco, for example, which recently reopened in a new building designed by Daniel Libeskind, offers children who visit with their school group free passes to return with their families, said director Connie Wolf. This casts a wider net than just targeting religious institutions.

“Everybody is dealing with interfaith families now,” said Wolf, whose museum features an ongoing exhibit exploring Jewish identity called Being Jewish: A Bay Area Portrait. “Interfaith families comprise a very large portion of the Jewish community. I’d be surprised if every museum isn’t engaging them in some way.”

Leaving the word “Jewish” out of the title of a museum or cultural center is another way some institutions are trying to broaden their reach. The New Center for Arts and Culture, which has plans for a building to be complete in 2012, plans to ultimately name the institution after a generous donor–and keep the J-word out, Achbar said.

“We thought long and hard about the decision,” she said. “The challenge is how to make your Jewish identity clear, but make it clear you welcome everyone. We will use the word ‘Jewish’ in the branding, but not in the name. We want to celebrate the interconnectedness of cultures.”

Other Jewish museums and cultural centers maintain that more people will come specifically because the word “Jewish” is in the name.

“People will find out what you are,” said Gwen Goodman, executive director of the National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia, whose exhibit Shaping Space, Making Meaning asks visitors to weigh in on contemporary issues, including, “Does intermarriage represent the triumph of American pluralism?” The National Museum of American Jewish History, like the New Center, is building a large new building in a major US city, projected to be complete in 2010.

“You can have whatever name you want, but it’s what you’re doing and how you make people feel [that matters],” Goodman said. “I find it to our benefit to have the name that we have.”

This is partly because many Jewish museums and cultural centers are increasingly adopting missions more in line with ethnic museums, such as those that celebrate Japanese American or Native American culture, Bender said.

“There would never be a Native American museum if you expected only Native Americans to go there,” she said. “We have a dual mission now to honor Jewish contributions to American life and to inform those less acquainted with our culture. This can allow the non-Jewish person in an interfaith relationship who is curious and wants to know more, but would never go into a temple, to learn without being in a pressurized situation.”

Together, interfaith couples can use an experience at one of these institutions as a springboard to discuss their backgrounds without feeling like one person holds authority over the other person, Goodman said.

“Museums are neutral territory,” she said. “We’re not judging people or looking for a particular denomination. A museum is a thing of freedom.”

The Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles also continues to expand its reach. Rather than just tell the biblical story of Noah’s Ark in an exhibition, for example, the center also illuminates stories from around the world that expand on the theme of floods.

“Addressing the phenomenon of interfaith families is something we discuss quite regularly,” said Ben Garcia, the center’s associate director of education. “It’s a tough balance to reach everyone. We try to highlight a universality of experience so whatever background you have, the message will resonate.”

The key is that most Jewish museums and cultural centers recognize more than ever the importance of celebrating diversity within the Jewish community.

“We want to start a dialogue about the key issues of our lives today,” Wolf said. “We want to come together despite our differences and discuss and debate how Jewish values and the ideas of Jewish tradition have universal relevance.”


About Cara Nissman

Cara Nissman is a journalist based in West Palm Beach, Fla. She has written articles about religion, education, parenting, health, travel and books for print and online publications, including Salon, The Palm Beach Post and South Florida Parenting. See her Web site at