Jewish Historical Society looking to museum future

A rendering of the museum that is slated to open 2021. (Courtesy of the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington)

With a planned Jewish museum slated to open at Third and F Streets NW in Washington in 2021, the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington is now working out the logistics of transitioning from a society that has exhibits and preserves history to a full-fledged historical museum.

“It’s a huge change,” said Executive Director Kara Blond, who joined the society in September. “It’s really pushing ourselves to [face the public.]”

Until now, the society had a small exhibit space in the small former Adas Israel synagogue, which was built in 1876. The space offered no room for follow-up learning or context, Blond said. That is what she wants the new museum to offer.

The centerpiece of the new museum will still be the historic synagogue, which will be moved next spring to the roof of an underground parking garage. The rest of the museum will be built around it.

Along with an exhibit in the synagogue’s sanctuary, the museum will have a permanent exhibit, space for traveling exhibits and community spaces.

“Our expertise is in programming, obviously,” said Curator Christiane Bauer. “And now we really have to think about becoming a real site — a site for the community.”

The focus now is to create the exhibits, decide what the museum will look like and how it will serve the community.

The society has crafted exhibitions before, which have appeared in local synagogues and the National Building Museum, among other locations. Board President Howard Morse said the permanent exhibits in the museum will be different than those, but still make use of the society’s collection.

That collection includes Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis’ law school notebooks, a bracelet worn by government contractor Alan Gross while imprisoned in Cuba, photos from the civil rights movement and signs from protests at the Soviet Embassy.

Bauer said the main theme of the museum will be “change” — both how the local Jewish community has changed and how the Jews of Washington have influenced political change. With more exhibit space will come a larger scope — not focusing in on one era or issue, but on the evolution of the Jewish community and the city.

“The national and international sides will always come through because the Washington Jewish community has always been intertwined with national and international issues,” she said.

Bauer said the exhibits and museum would incorporate technology and hands-on opportunities, like an interactive map showing the migration of Jews in Washington or incorporating virtual reality.

She and Blond also envisioned “immersive” experiences. The sanctuary of the historic synagogue, for example, would try to show the city and community of the time it was active through photos and videos projected on to the walls, along with oral histories and artifacts from the collections.

The museum will be able to tell both local and national stories because local events intertwine with national history, said Deputy Director Wendy Turman.

For example, in the 1850s, Washington Hebrew Congregation had to petition Congress to purchase land. The resolution Congress passed was signed by President Franklin Pierce. More than a century later, when Jews around the country were demonstrating on behalf of Soviet Jews, the Jews of Washington took their call for the right of Soviet Jews to emigrate straight to the embassy.

“That didn’t happen in any other city,” Turman said. “There’s a lot of those stories that play out here.”

Washington is a museum city. Blond, who worked at the Smithsonian Natural History Museum, said the Jewish museum will not be a “Day 1” visit for many tourists, but that it will be a destination nevertheless.

She also anticipated the museum being free, with a suggested donation.

Blond said she envisions the museum as a community space, a cultural, rather than religious, hub for Jews. She also hopes to offer discussions and lectures on current issues, using the historical lens and context a museum can provide. She pointed to immigration, women’s rights and the currents struggles for racial equality as issues such discussions could tackle.

“I think museums are one of the last trusted places without a political agenda,” she said.

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