Bedford Corners’ Little Jerusalem
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Bedford Corners’ Little Jerusalem

Shaaray Tefila opens ‘Israel Land,’ a museum for teaching about the Jewish state.

Merri Rosenberg is the Westchester correspondent for The Jewish Week.

If you believe the studies, American Jews’ ties to Israel are, like a worn garment, fraying at the seams. But one Reform temple in Bedford Corners is trying to knit up the raveled sleeve of care, so to speak.

At Temple Shaaray Tefila’s just-opened museum, dubbed Israel-Land, visitors will be able to stuff notes into a model of the Western Wall and dig for ancient pottery in a Judean Desert sandbox.

Housed on the second floor of the synagogue and covering about 600 square feet, the permanent museum, which opened last Sunday after 18 months of planning, is meant to bring Israel into the life of the temple in a more profound way than in the past.

“We have built Israel-Land to show our love for Israel and to increase knowledge of its history, culture and relationship to the Jewish people,” said David Greenberg, senior rabbi of Temple Shaaray Tefila, a Reform congregation in Bedford Corners. “We hope that a visit to Israel-Land will create a greater sense of connection between Israel and all of the members of the Northern Westchester community.”

Visitors enter the second-floor upstairs space after walking past corridors that display travel posters featuring such iconic images as Jerusalem and The Western Wall as well as a timeline highlighting key moments in Israel’s history from biblical times onwards.

Designed to appeal to all ages, the museum features exhibits about Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Masada, the Dead Sea and kibbutz life. While photographs, documents and substantive written explanations abound, there is a strong emphasis on hands-on participation by visitors.

“The whole design of the museum was intended to be for community members of all ages,” said Mara Braunfeld, education director at Temple Shaaray Tefila. “It’s not something just for kids. We were looking for ways to incorporate kid-friendly activities and language that would be educational for adults as well. The descriptions and paragraphs at these exhibits will provide a deeper historical lens.”

So at the model of the Western Wall, visitors are encouraged to write notes that can be stuffed into the wall. Members of the congregation will be traveling to Israel in a few weeks, and will hand-deliver those notes to the Kotel; the idea is that any notes dropped off at Israel-Land’s Western Wall in the future will be taken to Israel whenever there’s a congregational trip.

At the kibbutz exhibit, there are displays of toys made from eco-friendly materials by developmentally disabled adults at Kibbutz Kishor. At the Dead Sea/Masada exhibit, visitors can dig in a sandbox to uncover pottery shards. And the Tel Aviv display features images of Mediterranean beaches, a mosque and cityscapes, as well as a Coca-Cola bottle with Hebrew lettering; younger visitors are invited to build their own city with blocks or play Kadima, the popular beach paddle-ball game.

While the museum can work as a self-guided experience, Braunfeld said, “When we created the museum, we never intended it to stand on its own. When we take the religious-school classes there, teachers will act as docents. We’ll create a curriculum guide that will work for the 2-, 3- and 4-year-olds in our nursery school through our adult education program. We want to use the space as a springboard.”

The museum was funded by the Legacy Heritage Programming LLC, an affiliate of the Legacy Heritage Fund Limited, as part of an effort to encourage the development of innovative Israel education in American congregations.

“It’s about transforming the place of Israel in the congregation,” said Braunfeld. “Israel is definitely a large piece of the synagogue’s identity. We want individuals to have a strong connection to Israel.” n

For more information or to schedule visits, contact Temple Shaaray Tefila, 89 Baldwin Road, Bedford Corners. (914) 666-3133. www.shaaraytefila.org.

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