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Museum Operating on Shabbat? Ask Kids

November 24, 2010 By:
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For months, the board of the National Museum of American Jewish History debated just what to do about Shabbat. Should the new building be closed for the day, kept fully open or could there be room for some kind of compromise?

They might have saved some time by listening to kids at the Robert Saligman Middle School, part of the Raymond and Ruth Perelman Jewish Day School.

"You really conveyed every concern we took into account," Michael Rosenzweig, museum president and CEO, told roughly 90 students at the conclusion of a recent daven-and-discussion program.

Rosenzweig visited the Melrose Park school just days after a nationally publicized weekend of opening ceremonies celebrating the museum's new state-of-the-art home. The institution officially opens to the public on Friday, Nov. 26.

Since its founding in 1976, the museum had been situated inside Congregation Mikveh Israel and shut down on Saturdays. The question of how the institution decided to approach Shabbat in its brand-new, $150-million space -- located in the heart of Independence Mall -- has received attention in the local and national media.

Before telling students what the board came up with, Rosenzweig solicited their thoughts. A sea of hands shot up.

A museum can't absorb the lost revenues that would come with closing on Saturday, one student posited.

It would be hypocritical for an institution that's supposed to be teaching about Judaism to remain open, stated another. After all, it's against halachah to even go into a store and give the appearance of buying something.

The responses kept coming: Remaining open would actually honor Shabbat because it would promote the study of Jewish history. It would also make the site more accessible to non-Jews.

One pupil wondered whether a large contingent of Orthodox Jews would boycott the attraction if it remained open on Shabbat. (Some might, but it won't be a huge number, said Rosenzweig.)

Ultimately, the board decided to keep the exhibitions open on Shabbat and all but a select few Jewish holidays. However, on the open holy days, visitors will not be able to purchase tickets on the premises; they must buy them in advance, online or over at the Independence Visitor Center.

The gift shop will remain open, but no cash will be handled, and credit-card purchases won't be processed until the next day. A full explanation of the policy is posted inside the building and on the museum's website (www.nmajh.org).

Not a 'Perfect Solution'

Stating that the museum is a Jewish, but not religious, institution, Rosenzweig acknowledged that the compromise wasn't a "perfect solution." But he said that it did manage to distinguish Shabbat from other days.

"We drew a line, but it's an arbitrary line," he told the group.

After the talk, kids chimed in.

Seventh-grader Jesse Shuter, 12, was highly skeptical at first.

"People are going to say, 'Wait, why is this open if it's a holy day?' " said Shuter, adding that he was won over by the argument that if closed, the museum would be less accessible to non-Jews and less able to perform its mission.

Sixth-grader Rebecca Civan, 11, said that "they are making it very clear why they are doing it."

Jake Gordon, a seventh-grader, said that he appreciates that "they are proud to be open on Shabbat." Negotiating the boundaries of tradition and modernity exemplifies the way most American Jews live their lives, he said.

The board is making a statement that "we still care enough about Shabbat and Judaism to go and learn about our heritage. It's kind of like putting together the best parts of Judaism and learning, and the best part of American living."

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