Israel’s Beit Hatefutsot, the Museum of the Jewish People, is undergoing a total redesign, including changing its name from Museum of the Jewish Diaspora Museum. The Tel Aviv museum is a must-see destination on the itineraries of many U.S. tourists. Irina Nevzlin, the museum’s board chairman, gives the Jewish Week a peek into its renewal in advance of the museum’s annual gala dinner in New York on Dec. 14.
Q.: Why was Beit Hatefutsot created?
A: This museum was created as a place that tells the story [of the Jewish people up] until the establishment of the State of Israel and serves as a database for the Jewish people. Jews are spread all over the world, live very different lives and speak different languages. If a Jew wants to place himself on the map and understand whom he belongs to, what makes them a people, the museum’s purpose is to help him.
How much will the renovation cost?
One hundred million [dollars]. The [Israeli] government provided us with a $20 million matching grant. The rest will come from private donors and foundations from all over the world.
Why is the museum being redesigned?
The world has changed since the time the museum was opened in the ’70s, at a time when Israeli leaders still believed most Jews would eventually live in Israel. History has proved otherwise. More than half of the Jewish people live outside Israel. The museum tells the story of the past but we want to focus also on now — what Jewish life is, what the Jewish people are now.
Why do you see this as a mission?
In the world today, keeping a Jewish identity becomes harder and harder a task for young people, even in Israel. Today, when someone asks them who they are, the words ‘I’m Jewish’ isn’t automatic the way it was in previous generations. … Ironically, anti-Semitism helped my parents and grandparents feel Jewish. The establishment of the State of Israel also helped people connect to their Jewishness. Right now many young Jews don’t feel Jewish. … There’s an identity crisis among Jews, but not only among Jews. Through the museum we’re trying to show them what this family is like and let them choose to be a part of it.
What are the four exhibitions opening in May?
One will be on Jewish super heroes, another will be about Bob Dylan and his Jewish identity. Another will be the Synagogue Hall — we’ll use the models we’ve had in our collection for decades and show how they were the center of life in the Jewish community. They served as community centers but today there are many options for Jewish communal life and they don’t necessarily have to be in the synagogue. We want to present people with options, to show them there are a lot of ways to be Jewish. The fourth exhibit marks 30 years since Operation Moses and [focuses on] the life story of 10 of the Ethiopian Jews.
How does the new museum differ from the old?
The new museum will focus on inclusiveness, on pluralism. When the entire museum is open it will show all the different religious movements. It’s a platform from which people can explore how similar they are rather than how different. The Jewish people are all about culture, history, religion — there are so many aspects to the Jewish people.
Will there be physical differences too?
The old museum was is a very dark place largely because the technology we used. What was then cutting-edge technology, interactive exhibits and videos, required dark places. The new museum will be very light. … We’re telling the story in a different way. Rather than telling a story of survival we’re telling the story of creativity, the future, success, globalization. The Jewish people went through a lot but we’re flourishing everywhere in the world.
What, if anything, has been retained?
We’re getting rid of almost everything other than the synagogue models and the databases. Other than the models, the only artifacts we’ll have are the ones we’re acquiring for the new museum: different films, for example. The technology has changed dramatically. We’re creating the feeling that you’re inside the synagogues and part of what’s happening.