Beth Hatefutsoth is becoming a new world center for Jewish peoplehood

BY GAIL LICHTMAN, IPS

Beth Hatefutsoth, the Nahum Goldman Museum of the Jewish Diaspora in Tel Aviv, is poised to become a World Center for Jewish Peoplehood following a law passed by the Knesset in December 2005 that confers the status of “a national institute for Jewish communities worldwide” on the museum.

The new law comes at a time of changing Jewish realities, when unparalleled assimilation rates, intermarriage and waning individual and collective Jewish identity threaten the Jewish people. The World Center will serve as a powerful force in forging a vibrant, unified Jewish people and fostering knowledge, understanding and pride.

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In anticipation, the museum, in the capable hands of its new dynamic director Hasia Israeli, is now gearing up for a process of renewal and revival to meet its new status. “This,” said Israeli, “will involve turning the museum’s face more towards Jewish education and adding the latest in modern technology and visual effects, without changing its existing concept of providing an emotional and personal, as well as intellectual, journey through Jewish history.”

In order to realize this renewal, Beth Hatefutsoth has embarked on a capital campaign aimed at raising $12 million over three years. The museum has already received $2 million from the Claims Conference against Germany, as well as the backing of the Israeli government. The government initially pledged full matching of donor gifts but due to the war in Lebanon, museum officials are no longer certain of full matching, although they do anticipate continued government participation.

Moreover, in 2004, Israeli businessman Leonid Nevzlin, chairman of the museum’s newly established board of governors, pledged a donation of $5 million over five years to the institution, and recently added a gift of $1 million towards upgrading and renovating the galleries of the permanent exhibit. “It is essential for the Jewish people to have a cultural institution that transcends our differences and brings us together in peoplehood,” he stated.

“Mr. Nevzlin’s generosity has made it possible for us to expand, to develop, to reach out to communities, to offer programming and to do many other things,” said Yefet Ozery, director of resource development and overseas relations at Beth Hatefutsoth.

Founded in 1978, Beth Hatefutsoth was one of the first Jewish museums in the world. It presents the saga of 2,500 years of Jewish dispersion, during which the indomitable spirit of the Jewish people succeeded in preserving a shared heritage and common destiny despite vast differences in language, geography and culture.

Some 100,000 visitors a year, including many youth groups from Israel and abroad, pass through its journey, which is presented through six thematic galleries, each one representing a facet that safeguarded the Jewish people throughout history. The galleries focus on Family, Community, Faith, Culture, Life Among the Nations and the Return to Zion.

In addition to the museum’s permanent collection, Beth Hatefutsoth has amassed one of the world’s most impressive database collections and visual documentation of Jewish cultural treasures and Jewish life in the Diaspora. The upgrading project will include digitations of the data and making it accessible to visitors through user-friendly computer terminals throughout the museum.

The renewal will focus on upgrading and redesigning the permanent exhibition to include interactive, state-of-the-art multimedia technology. Looking ahead, Beth Hatefutsoth is in the process of establishing a new wing, to be housed in the existing Spiegel building, which will showcase the accomplishments and challenges of contemporary Jewry.

The biggest innovation involves the establishment of the School of Jewish Peoplehood, which gives the museum a new educational direction aimed at curriculum and content development, teachers and educators, young adults and academics.

“The school’s objective is to impart knowledge and understanding about the Jewish people, encourage pride in the Jewish heritage and address the dilemmas of Jewish life in modern times,” says Hasia Israeli.

Working with Kivunim (Directions), the largest Israel-based professional development program in the Jewish educational world, the school has created a program for educators from Israel and the U.S. which, according to former program participant Anileen Gray, creates “an intellectual, spiritual and emotional experience that establishes a bond between those teaching in Jewish schools and the land of Israel.”

Steps are also being taken to create an Integrated Multimedia Center within the World Center that will merge and integrate all of the museum’s current and future digital databases — the two million individuals listed in the Jewish Genealogy Center, the photo-documentation of Jewish communal life in the Visual Documentation Center, the extensive collection of Jewish music in the Music Center, the more than 16,000 entries in the Jewish Family Names database and present and past Jewish Communities in the Diaspora.

The information from the Multimedia Information Center will be incorporated into a global Jewish Internet communication network.

The new Center aspires to reflect the uniqueness and diversity of the Jewish people throughout history, while at the same time emphasizing its unity. And as always, Beth Hatefutsoth looks forward — in the words of one of its founders, Jewish resistance fighter and poet Abba Kovner — to continuing to encourage the Jewish people “to remember the past, to live the present and to trust in the future.”

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