Jewish Museums in the United States
Jewish women play prominent roles as founders, directors, curators, artists, and patrons of Jewish museums in the United States. While women have rarely played an exclusive role in the creation of either small community or larger museums, their work as creators and developers of these repositories is critical.
Jewish museums emerged in several European cities over a short span of years in the late nineteenth century. Emancipation and Enlightenment resulted in the transformation of objects of traditional religious practice, intended for home or synagogue use, into artifacts for passive display. Similar motivation led Judge Mayer Sulzburger to donate twenty-five objects to the library of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America (JTS) in 1904. From this seed, and from the 1944 gift of Frieda Schiff Warburg of the neo-Gothic mansion at 92nd Street and Fifth Avenue in New York, grew the Jewish Museum.
The first formalized museum in America dedicated to Judaica was established in 1913, when Hebrew Union College (HUC) organized its museum in Cincinnati. (Reorganized, it became the Skirball Museum in Los Angeles, in 1972.) Throughout its history, the National Federation of Temple Sisterhoods (renamed the Women of Reform Judaism in 1993) has also played a considerable role in creating Jewish museums, even including in its bylaws that one of the five goals of each sisterhood should be the establishment of a Jewish museum in every synagogue. It is particularly since the Holocaust that Jewish museums in America have flourished. When the Judah L. Magnes Museum, named for the San Francisco rabbi who presided over the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, was established in Oakland, California, in 1962, the words of Rebecca Fromer reflected the new consciousness:
Before the ashes there was life, and that life would be celebrated, and perhaps if we were lucky would constitute restoration of the name and serve to sanctify it.... And so, the museum began with a wealth of mind, the desire to share, to make real through something that could be seen and touched, a part of the collective identity we had no other way of knowing.
Across the United States, the new recognition of the need to preserve and document Jewish culture, and through its interpretation to educate a new generation of Jews and non-Jews, motivated founders of Jewish museums. Notable are the B’nai B’rith Klutznick National Jewish Museum, established in Washington, D.C., in 1957; the Judah L. Magnes Museum, established in Oakland, California, in 1962 and then moved to Berkeley, California; the Spertus Museum of Judaica, established in Chicago in 1967; Yeshiva University Museum, established in New York City in 1973; and the National Museum of American Jewish History, established in Philadelphia, in 1976.
Along with the Jewish Museum in New York and the HUC Skirball Museum in Los Angeles, in 1977 these seven Jewish museums established the Council of American Jewish Museums (CAJM), which later received ongoing administrative support from the National Foundation for Jewish Culture. Membership was made available to other museums in 1987. By 2004, the CAJM had grown to more than seventy-five member museums, including art and history museums, Jewish historic sites, historic and archival societies, Holocaust centers, synagogue museums and galleries associated with Jewish community centers and universities. Synagogue museums and community center galleries represent over one-third of CAJM members. Representatives of many of these museums attend annual conferences and are involved in other programmatic activities.
Representing a broad spectrum, from modest synagogue collections to major exhibiting institutions, almost all the members of the CAJM are supported by larger institutions. The Skirball Museum, supported by the Reform Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion; the Jewish Museum, supported by the Conservative Jewish Theological Seminary of America; and Yeshiva University Museum, supported by the Orthodox Yeshiva University, are projects of the academies of three major American Jewish movements, while the Spertus Museum of Judaica is supported by the independent Spertus College. The Judaica Museum of The Hebrew Home for the Aged in Riverdale, in Bronx, New York, and My Jewish Discovery Center of the Jewish Community Center of Los Angeles illustrate the diversity of parent institutions.
In October 2000, five institutions combined their holdings to form the Center for Jewish History in New York City, an amalgm of the American Jewish Historical Society, American Sephardi Federation, Leo Baeck Institute, Yeshiva University Museum and the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research that is now the largest repository of Jewish documentation outside Israel.
A significant number of Holocaust memorials and museums have been established in the United States. Although dominated by the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. (a federal museum supported in part by private funds) and the Museum of Tolerance of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, the memorial function and specific focus of these centers, along with the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York City and other members of the Association of Holocaust Organizations, have often separated their path from that of Jewish museums—a fact that provides evidence of Jewish vitality and diversity. Ironically, it has often been more difficult to rally strong public support for Jewish museums, because contemporary Jewish life has so profoundly identified with the Holocaust.
There are many explanations for the contributions of women to the development of Jewish museums. In previous decades, Jewish museums offered them opportunities for recognition not attainable in other fields. For example, in the Western European birthplaces of Jewish museums, educated and culturally alert women could volunteer and enter into careers at the museums. In recent decades, as professional areas such as rabbinate and cantorate have opened to women, and as academic opportunities at university levels have expanded, women’s involvement in Jewish museums has increased.
Professional Jewish museum work has been a more recent development. Although the academic field of Jewish art was advanced in pre-Holocaust Europe, its American version was not advanced until Rachel Wischnitzer, former curator of the Berlin Jewish Museum, began teaching at Stern College for Women of Yeshiva University in New York City, at age seventy-one. During a twelve-year span, she served as a role model and inspiration to several generations of students at Stern College.
Access to Jewish arts education remained rare until the development of Jewish studies programs after the 1970s. Many leading Jewish museum professionals trained in related art fields. Olga Weiss, curator of exhibitions at the Spertus Museum of Judaica, worked as a volunteer before earning a master’s degree in art history. Susan Goodman studied primitive art, beginning her career at the Guggenheim Museum, later joining the staff of the Jewish Museum, where she serves as chief curator. Female leadership at both these institutions encouraged Goodman’s professional development.
Only recently have more options been offered for serious training in the arts, Jewish studies, and education. Vivian Mann, who holds the Morris and Eva Feld Chair of Judaica at the Jewish Museum, directs the first master’s program in Jewish art and material culture. In the first year of the program (1994–1995), twelve of fourteen students were female. Joint studies at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, Columbia University, and the Jewish Museum are creating a new professional standard for future generations of Jewish women museum professionals.
In 1997, some eighty percent of Jewish museum directors were women. This continued a pattern of women building, creating and developing these institutions. Joy Ungerleider-Mayerson directed the Jewish Museum in the 1970s, later becoming a strong patron of Jewish arts worldwide through the Dorot Foundation. Joan Rosenbaum, who succeeded her in 1980, brought the museum international recognition, guiding a major expansion project in 1992. Under their leadership, the Jewish Museum presented exhibitions that extended far beyond ritual objects and transformed the museum into a center for the study of contemporary art, history, and culture as interpreted in Jewish life. Other museum directors have continued this pattern. Sylvia Herskowitz, longtime director of the Yeshiva University Museum, nurtured the museum through a period of growth and accomplishment. For many years Margo Bloom developed and displayed a number of analytical social history exhibitions at the National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia. Anna Cohn spearheaded the evolution of the B’nai B’rith Klutznick National Jewish Museum from a gallery installation to a substantial exhibition facility. She later developed the Precious Legacy Project, a traveling exhibit of Judaica collected at Prague from destroyed Czech and Slovak Jewish communities, and then served as the first director of museum planning for the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. Rebecca Fromer and Ruth Eis played extraordinary roles in the establishment and collection development of the Judah L. Magnes Museum. Nancy Berman, formerly curator at the Jewish Museum, transformed the Skirball Museum after 1972, leading to the 1996 opening of the Skirball Cultural Center.Women continue to lead institutions: Carole Zawatsky is the founding director of the Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage in Beechwood Ohio, which opened in 2005. The Jewish Women’s Archive in Boston, MA has been ably led by Gail Riemer, who has pioneered in collecting archival and online archival resources about women, including oral histories.
Grace Cohen Grossman, curator at the Skirball Museum, advanced cataloging of Judaica at the Smithsonian Institution as research collaborator for the National Museum of American History. Her other achievements include the core exhibition and Project Americana of the Skirball Museum, and the publication of the comprehensive Jewish Art (1995) and Jewish Museums of the World (2003).
Working in other repositories, such as the library of the JTS, Evelyn Cohen pioneered the creation of the Jewish Art Department. Sharon Liberman Mintz continued this work, which resulted in an extensive collection and exhibition program relating to all aspects of the Hebrew book, manuscripts, and related art objects.
Jewish museums bear testimony to the husbands and wives who have collected Judaica together, and who have, in many cases, made considerable financial contributions. A few donors stand out in generously shaping museums. Abram Kanof and his wife, Frances Pascher, established the Tobe Pascher Workshop at the Jewish Museum as a studio center for the creation of Jewish ceremonial art; Erica Pappenheim Jesselson and her husband, Ludwig Jesselson, have long been identified as the patrons of the Yeshiva University Museum; and Audrey Skirball Kenis, with her support of the new Skirball Cultural Center and Museum, has continued Jack Skirball’s vision of a new kind of cultural and educational entity to reinforce Jewish identity.
Jewish museums have transformed themselves from repositories to vital centers of Jewish education and identity formation. Esther Netter, of My Jewish Discovery Center, targeted assimilated Jews and intermarried families through a series of traveling exhibitions. Adele Lander Burke, of the Skirball Museum, developed the groundbreaking MUSE program, which uses ethnographic approaches to compare ceremonial objects among diverse cultures. Judith Siegel, for many years director of education at the Jewish Museum, helped develop programs for Bridges and Boundaries, an exhibition exploring Jewish and African-American identities.
Volunteers continue to play a significant role in Jewish museums. Women have predominated as docents, conducting tours and programs. The Skirball Museum has 140 docents, and Yeshiva University Museum has over thirty, while the Jewish Museum limits its corps to forty. In recent years, there has been a notable shift toward male retirees whose volunteer efforts mark a search for a fulfilling experience, while new, full-time career opportunities have been made available to women.
Judith Siegel, former director of education at the Jewish Museum, feels that the arts offer an opportunity for a richer integration of the volunteer’s own education, delving into “Who am I? What can I teach? What audience can I reach? What levels of instruction can I provide?” This search for identity bridges centuries and is “a way [for volunteers] to think creatively about what they know.”
Since the 1970s, a growing number of synagogue Judaica collections have been made accessible through the establishment of interpretive exhibitions and the creation of gallery space. For the most part, these small museums are projects developed and run by women from the congregation or its sisterhood. Collections range in size from a few pieces in a showcase to several rooms. Efforts like the Sylvia Plotkin Judaica Museum in Phoenix, Arizona, the Temple Judea Museum of Keneseth Israel in Elkins Park, Pennsylvania, and the Mizel Museum of Judaica in Denver, Colorado, are notable: All three have developed their own shows by taking an interpretive approach to the collections.
With the publication of A Temple Treasury: The Judaica Collection of Congregation Emanu-El of the City of New York by Reva Goodlove Kirschberg and Cissy Grossman, this collection of New York’s Congregation Emanu-El has become well known. It is featured in the newly opened Herbert and Eileen Bernard Museum and includes both the functional objects formerly used in the synagogue and a formal collection begun in 1928 when the present building at Fifth Avenue and 65th Street was erected. Cissy Grossman, curator of the collection, has also developed numerous Judaica exhibitions as assistant curator at the Jewish Museum and curator of the historic Central Synagogue collection in New York City.
In addition to the numerous synagogues whose buildings have landmark status, significant collections include the Congregation Beth Ahabah Museum and Archives Trust, in Richmond, Virginia, and the Dr. Edgar R. Cofeld Judaic Museum of Temple Beth Zion, in Buffalo, New York. The Elizabeth S. Fine Museum at Congregation Emanu-El, in San Francisco, bears the name of the wife of longtime rabbi Alvin Fine, while the Janice Charach Epstein Museum Gallery of the Jewish Community Center of Metropolitan Detroit bears the name of this young artist, also in memoriam. The mission of this gallery is to show and support the work of young Jewish artists.
The traditionally strong presence of women in the Jewish museum field has shaped and defined the scope and influence of these institutions. Women make enormous contributions as builders of institutions. Yet their strong presence fails to give museums priority of place for Jewish communal budgets, where museums struggle to carve their identity against a backdrop of more pressing social service demands. Consequently, even today, Jewish museums occupy a modest position in the Jewish communal roster. Perhaps because women direct them, Jewish museums are compelled to continue to struggle to achieve even a modest degree of visibility within the philanthropic community.
Nonetheless, Jewish museums have played an enhanced role in recent decades as educational and cultural centers, as well as sources of preservation and documentation of significant historical events. Their ability to recognize the changing social and religious needs of their communities assures both an important and vibrant future for these institutions.
AJYB 91 (1991), s.v. “American Jewish Museums: Trends and Issues”; Bilski, Emily D. “The Art of the Jewish Museum.” In The Jewish Museum New York (1993); Glaser, Jane R., and Artemis A. Zenetou. Gender Perspectives: Essays on Women in Museums (1994); Greenwald, Alice. “Jewish Museums in the U.S.A.” EJ Yearbook (1988–1989): 167–181; Grossman, Cissy and Reva Goodlove Kirschberg. A Temple Treasury: The Judaica Collection of Congregation Emanu-El of the City of New York (1989); Grossman, Grace. Jewish Art (1995); Siegel, Judith. Conversation with author, December 1995; Van Voolen, Edward. “Jewish Museums in Europe.” EJ Yearbook (1988–1989): 182–188.
How to cite this page
Franklin, Karen S.. "Jewish Museums in the United States." Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 1 March 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on March 20, 2018) <https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/jewish-museums-in-united-states>.