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Jewish Museum Reframes Shabbat

January 23, 2013 By:
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Connie Stack doesn’t keep kosher or Shabbat at her home in Bergen County, N.J. But she thinks the National Museum of American Jewish History should.

Stack offered her opinion as she and her family strolled the museum lobby on a recent first visit a few hours before the start of Shabbat.

Six months ago, Friday afternoon ushered in a change in routine at the museum in honor of Shabbat: The museum remained opened but visitors couldn’t purchase tickets on site. On Saturday, the kosher cafe closed.The gift shop only accepted credit cards. And the museum was off limits for Friday evening and Saturday afternoon events and celebrations.

Those restrictions are now gone. You can purchase a ticket on site on Saturday; organizations can rent space at the museum for Friday evening events; the cafe remains open on Saturdays and is no longer kosher; and non-kosher catering is allowed.

To honor the day, visitors on Saturdays are greeted at the door with a “Shabbat Shalom” and offered challah and grape juice. The museum is also planning a program that will provide visitors with information connecting that week’s Torah portion to American values and ideals.

The changes are part of a larger effort by museum officials to make the institution more accessible to those outside the Jewish community, which currently accounts for 75 percent of the museum visitors, said CEO Ivy Barsky. In December, for example, the museum marketed its annual Dec. 25 program as “Being ____ at Christmas,” which in previous years had been called “Being Jewish at Christmas.”

Last week, the museum opened “Beyond Swastika and Jim Crow: Jewish Refugee Scholars at Black Colleges,” an exhibit that officials hope will have wide appeal.

The push for broader outreach comes two years after the $142-million museum opened on Independence Mall surrounded by much fanfare, with entertainers Bette Midler and Jerry Seinfeld headlining the festivities. But once the initial excitement faded, the museum struggled to generate daily traffic. Attendance has fallen far short of the 250,000 annual visitors initially projected — in two years, total attendance is just over 200,000 — and membership has slipped from a high of 18,000 to under 14,000, according to officials.

Those connected to the museum say that if the institution is to succeed, it must find a way to reach more non-Jews. And part of that has to happen on Saturday, which is generally the strongest day of the week for museums around the United States. Barsky said the Jewish museum lagged behind other institutions on Independence Mall.

At a meeting in June, board members re-evaluated their Shabbat policies. “We didn’t want people to come away with some perception of Shabbat that it’s about all the things you can’t do, that it’s about prohibitions,” said Barsky, who started at the museum in 2011 and was appointed CEO last summer. She said there has been little negative feedback to the changes and that most of it has come from people who do not observe Shabbat themselves.

Since its opening, the museum has been seen as a desirable locale for Jewish and non-Jewish events; the building contains a spacious fifth floor overlooking Independence Mall. But until the changes took effect, no outside groups could hold events on Shabbat and they all had to include kosher catering.

One group that took advantage of this change was the Buoniconti Fund, which raises money for a spinal cord injury research center. It held its ninth annual “Raise a Glass for the Cure,” on a Friday night in November. Caren Jones, who helped start the Philadelphia chapter of the organization, said they had always held the fundraiser on Friday nights, which meant that the museum was previously not an option.

“I got the impression that we had to be respectful about not having shrimp and pork and stuff that blatantly wasn’t kosh­er, but being Jewish myself I wanted to be respectful to the museum anyway,” Jones said. She said she was so impressed with the space for her event, she plans to have it there again next year.

But some visitors are still questioning the changes. “I think that it should stand as a role model for Jewish and non-Jewish people,” Connie Stack  said. “I don’t understand how removing those restrictions opens it up to a wider audience.”

While touring the museum for the first time, Jefferson Packer, who is not Jewish and lives in San Francisco, said he thinks people not affiliated with Judaism would understand if the museum or just its cafe were closed to observe the Sabbath. “That would make sense,” said Packer, a 39-year-old who grew up in Philadelphia. “When you visit a Jewish museum, you’re going to experience Jewish culture.”

Josh Pober and his wife, Pearl, visited the museum from Cherry Hill, N.J., and disagreed on whether the museum needed to keep kosher. Pearl Pober said, “Yes.” Josh said, “To each his own. It’s not a synagogue, it’s a museum,” he said.

Barsky said some people felt inconvenienced by the restrictions. When the museum opened, officials wanted the institution to observe Shabbat and hoped that the restrictions would spark people unfamiliar with the holiday to ask questions; instead, often times they just left.

She said Saturday attendance has increased since the museum made the changes but she didn’t respond to requests for specific numbers. She said there has been a 10 percent increase in the number of people booking the museum for events, which brings important revenue to the museum.

Rabbi Lance Sussman of Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel in Elkins Park said increasing attendance is crucial not only for the ticket revenue but also for attracting needed philanthropic support. The museum’s annual budget is more than $11 million — $1.4 million of which goes toward paying off loans used to construct the new building, according to Barsky.

Sussman taught docent classes at the museum and helped redesign its curriculum to meet Philadelphia public school standards for field trips. He said he thinks liberalizing the Shabbat policies ultimately will help the museum. But because so much of the museum space is permanent, he said, it’s not yet a place that inspires repeat visits.

“It’s a great tool to have for the community as far as an educational resource and venue,” Sussman said. “But it just hasn’t quite come alive yet.”

Jonathan Sarna, chief historian of the museum, said other Jewish institutions grapple with similar tensions between the sometimes competing priorities of adhering to religious traditions and values while trying to increase the number of visitors.

The Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York, for example, where Barsky served as deputy director before coming to Phila­delphia, is closed on Shabbat and its cafe is kosher.

But the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles, whose mission, according to its website, is to explore the “connections between 4,000 years of Jewish heritage and the vitality of American democratic ideals,” remains open on Saturdays, and its cafe is similarly not kosher but without pork and shellfish.

“It is not easy for a museum to succeed economically if it can not be open on Saturdays,”  said Sarna, a professor at Brandeis University in Massachusetts. “But at the same time you want to teach people something about Jews and Jewish life.”

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