By Haydee M. Rodriguez
Rebekah Sobel sees her task as bringing to life the rich history of Washington’s Jewish community in a way that is tangible — even touchable — for visitors to the Capital Jewish Museum.
“Objects play a central role,” said Sobel, 48, whose title is director of interpretation. “But they are not the only thing. And part of what I do is bring context to the objects that are selected.”
To bring the history and its context to today’s audiences, Sobel and her team start by asking questions, chief among them: How to choose objects that tell the story to Jewish and non-Jewish visitors alike, and, ensuring that the objects are, in some cases, touchable.
“Putting an everyday object in a case, behind a glass, in a museum, changes its meaning,” said Sobel.
She tries to find a balance between preserving historical objects so that they do not deteriorate and allowing visitors to have a personal connection with then.
Much of Sobel and her team’s work is creating “a three-dimensional space, with interactives, film or objects.”
“We want to make sure that we allow visitors to touch some objects, so we work to create a three-dimensional public space to understand history – and the challenge is developing a different medium, a third space, to allow for that experience in a public space.”
Take, for example, a mezuzah that may be more than 100 years old.
“We start by asking questions, such as, whose was it? Where was it installed? Does it have a scroll? Is it kosher? A mezuzah is meant to be touched and one of the critical questions for us is, would we put it in a case and not let visitors touch it because it’s old?
“In some cases, museums have shied away from educational collections and ask, instead of keeping things locked in storage, how do we allow people to experience these ideas and stories in new ways? Whether it’s a metal or wooden object — why is that important?” Allowing visitors to have that “additional sensory connection makes it feel more real” said Sobel.
For the time being, visitors are not providing answers. The Capital Jewish Museum is closed while a new facility is under construction. The anticipated opening date is 2022.
Sobel compares the experience the museum seeks to give visitors to Jewish community centers that ask children to make menorahs or dreidels, saying, “I don’t see why a museum can’t have a parallel strength in a collection.
“We have tefillin in our collection,” Sobel continued. “One set is too fragile, from the 1800s, but we have other ones, and the question becomes, why can’t we let people touch the tefillin, for example, try it on, see what it feels like,” and in that context, explain to visitors its historical and religious significance, add a more personal experience and, perhaps, a better understanding of the people behind the objects.
The aim, said Sobel, is to help people connect, reflect, act.
Sobel brings a wealth of experience to her role, including a decade at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum as an “in house evaluator.”
And, while the Capital Jewish Museum does not address the Holocaust in depth, Sobel wants to make sure that visitors understand what Jewish culture and history are and, in so doing, help reduce anti-Semitism.
COVID concerns have also changed how Sobel and her team approach exhibition development and increasing educational collections in the new museum.
“Touching things in public spaces is concerning right now. We are not pulling away from this, but mitigating concerns as we develop museum experiences conscientiously.”
The museum is working with George Mason University to collect objects during the pandemic. A year ago, photos of a Zoom meeting would not have been particularly interesting or meaningful.
Now, Sobel said, the museum has collected photographs of people having Zoom events — Shabbat dinners, funerals, Havdalah services, Torah studies, Hebrew school classes.
“If I had received a photograph of a Zoom meeting a year ago, I would have asked, “Why didn’t you just go?’ A year from now, a photograph will let us see that we were able to make the shift culturally, and it won’t be surprising,” she said, adding,
“It’s all a balancing act. Creating spaces that bring people together to learn about culture, people and ideas in innovative ways is what museums do.”