Harnessing the Power of the Network: The Council of American Jewish Museums

Lonnie Firestone
"Dwell Together in Unity": The facade of the Oregon Jewish Museum.

In 1904, The Jewish Museum—the first American museum dedicated entirely to Jewish art, history, and culture—opened its doors in New York City. It’s difficult to say exactly how many have opened (and closed) since then. What we do know is that the network of the Council of American Jewish Museums (CAJM) includes 70 institutions that regularly interact, collaborate, and share ideas. 

Some institutions educate the public about Jewish history; others celebrate and explore Jewish arts and culture. Either way, a shared sense of Jewish narrative links them. “Many museums were founded on an immigration narrative storyline, a refugee storyline, or a survivor storyline,” explains Melissa Martens Yaverbaum, Executive Director of CAJM. “That story of coming to America and starting over is something we have in common across many Jewish organizations.”
2021 finds Jewish museums in North America as a crucial part of the cultural landscape, but at something of a crossroads: the narratives are evolving as Jewish museums consider a fuller picture of the global Jewish community and the places where the institutions are situated. 
At the same time, there are practical concerns: museum directors are determining how to get visitors back inside following a year and a half of pandemic life.
CAJM exists to support these organizations as they navigate these questions and to forge connections between them, describing itself as an “association of institutions and individuals committed to enriching American and Jewish culture and enhancing the value of Jewish museums to their communities.” As a reflection of this mission, CAJM’s board is comprised entirely of museum professionals. 
Under Yaverbaum’s leadership since 2014, CAJM has aimed to be both connector and provider to Jewish museums, facilitating relationships—through introductions, talking circles, and conferences—and offering resources that support museums in their development and programming.
“The CAJM network is instrumental in connecting colleagues from across the U.S. and Canada and to convening professionals to wrestle in shared community with big-picture issues like 21st century Jewish museum identity,” says Melissa Hiller, Director of The American Jewish Museum of the JCC of Greater Pittsburgh.

While Jewish museums in North America are a success story, there are indeed issues to wrestle with.
The growing landscape of Jewish museums

CAJM’s history is parallel to the growth of Jewish museums in North America. CAJM began in the late 1970s with a network of seven museums. The greatest period of growth started in the 1980s, as several more museums opened, culminating in the United States Holocaust Museum, which opened in 1993 in Washington D.C.
Yaverbaum suggests that one reason for the growth of Jewish museums towards the end of the 20th century was “the increase of Jewish studies programs and Holocaust studies programs in schools and universities. They created an appetite for education and exploration.” 
CAJM’s development around the same time “started with museum directors coming to the table and realizing that they shared a lot of concerns,” Yaverbaum says.
High among them was the need to cultivate a nurturing space for the Jewish community and simultaneously create a compelling experience for the general public. 
As Yaverbaum describes it, “You might have folks who are encountering a narrative about Jewish culture for the first time in the same gallery with people who lived some of these experiences. So, how do we make the most of that giant opportunity and become really magnetic arenas for exploring Jewish narratives and content?”
That challenge is particularly acute for museums that focus on the Holocaust. Judy Margles, Executive Director of the Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education (OJMCHE), explains that her work “focuses on the most painful chapters in Jewish history, and the mission is keeping the content relevant regardless of the age, background, and personal experience of the audiences.” 
Currently about half of the museums in CAJM’s network focus on arts, culture, or Judaica, with the other half focusing on history or the Holocaust.
A handful are large institutions—the 2018 budget of the United States Holocaust Museum was $120M, and the Jewish Museum’s was $22M. The vast majority, however, are smaller and more community-based.
“More than 60 Jewish communities across North America have one or more Jewish museums,” according to Yaverbaum; CAJM’s network, as mentioned above, has expanded to 70 institutions. 

A handful of Jewish museums are large institutions, like The United States Holocaust Museum and The Jewish Museum. The vast majority, however, are smaller and more community-based.

The power of the network 

“Being a part of CAJM has allowed this museum to participate in educational opportunities, networking at the highest level, and the ability to rent the most innovative exhibitions from other CAJM members, while lending some of ours to them,” says Susan Gladstone, Executive Director of the Jewish Museum of Florida-FIU.

With CAJM, museum directors enter a professional community in which to merge their resources, navigate difficult terrain, and foster new partnerships. Judy Margles of the OJMCHE served on CAJM’s board and was chair from 2010 to 2012. Margles says that “OJMCHE has a long history with CAJM,” and emphasized two special programs that came about through CAJM and through CANVAS:

“During Sukkot of 2020, OJMCHE was one of three Jewish museums chosen for a national project, Dwelling in a Time of Plagues, a real-world creative response to the plagues of our times. We worked with [former Alvin Ailey dancer] Adam McKinney, who created Shelter in Place, a video and dance-based response to anti-Black racial violence.” (Dwelling was organized by CANVAS grantees Asylum Arts, CAJM, the Jewish Book Council, LABA, and Reboot; it was funded in its entirety by CANVAS.)

In addition, “OJMCHE was one of the original museums involved in Chronicling These Times, an oral history project created by CAJM to document community stories of the pandemic and the movement for racial justice.” 

Sol Davis, Executive Director of the Jewish Museum of Maryland (JMM), is a current CAJM board member and has brought his team into the CAJM network. 

“JMM staff participate in CAJM talking circles which bring Jewish museum professionals from across the field together for thematic conversations germane to our shared work,” he says. 

CAJM also facilitated JMM’s involvement in nationwide artistic projects. “The institution participated in the Pesach iteration of Dwelling in a Time ofPlagues and is currently collecting materials on the Jewish pandemic experience for Collecting These Times,” he says. 

Finally, through CAJM, JMM forged links with LABA. As Davis explains, “JMM worked with LABA on the outdoor installation in the absence of a proper mourning, part of the Dwelling in a Time of Plagues project. More recently, Ronit Muszkatblit, Senior Director Arts + Culture at LABA served on a curatorial panel that made selections for an upcoming exhibition, A Fence Around the Torah: Safety & Unsafety in Jewish Life.”

Helping envision what’s next

In this politically charged time, Jewish museums are re-examining their narratives and considering how to stay true to their missions while being more inclusive. Jewish museums have always sought to engage both Jewish and non-Jewish audiences, but many directors have more recently widened the scope of exhibits themselves. In Judy Margles’s view, it is essential that Jewish museums “appeal to a diverse audience with differing interests.” 

The OJMCHE explores both the Oregon Jewish experience and the Holocaust. Increasingly, says Margles, “audiences are looking for the intersectionality of our work. Taken together, these missions demand that we consider and reconsider our Jewish persecution stories in the context of injustice as such, Jewish or otherwise.”

The annual CAJM conference offers an indispensable opportunity for museum professionals to explore these issues. According to Melissa Hiller, CAJM prompted her to “ask hard questions about Jewish American history and consider our roles and involvement with activism around pressing issues in our respective communities—particularly around immigration, anti-Black racism, anti-Asian xenophobia, and BLM protests.”

There are several discussion groups at each year’s conference that help museum directors evaluate their practices and exhibitions. At the 2021 conference, discussion topics included, “Advancing Inclusion in Jewish Museums” and “Holocaust Museums and Moral Responsibility.” In these conversations, museum professionals have considered broadening their programs to examine other genocides and injustices—not to eclipse the Jewish experience but to create points of connectivity for all attendees.

A recent New York Times’ article about Steven Spielberg’s USC Shoah Foundation notes that several Holocaust-centered museums hope to educate on the past through a contemporary lens, with institutions “broadening their approach to look beyond the past and reflect today’s social changes.”

At the same time directors are working through these societal concerns, they’re facing the same question as any other institution: how to respond to and recover from the pandemic. 

Many museum directors pivoted online. For its  Judith Lieber exhibition, The Jewish Museum of Florida-FIU created a self-guided, virtual reality experience with live speakers to approximate an in-person visit—a kind of walk-through guided by a curator. When the museum was forced to close due to the pandemic, it made the VR program available online, allowing the exhibition to be shared by more than 80 institutions around North America. 

“We reached thousands of people we would not have reached otherwise,” Susan Gladstone says. 

The success of the exhibition paved the way for Hello Gorgeous: The Life of Barbra Streisand, which celebrates the life of the performer with costumes and other artifacts, to have an online component as well. Hello Gorgeous will open live at the museum and will have VR tours available through other institutions.

The right balance of in-person and online programming is a pressing issue for CAJM. Yaverbaum notes, “On the one hand, we want to produce a wider-reaching, more accessible menu for digital learning. And yet, museums are known for their original artifacts, historic sites, and experiential encounters. So as a museum association, we need to find a way to embrace both spheres of opportunity at the same time to strengthen our learning together.” 

There are no simple answers to questions of narrative or hybrid programming. What is clear, though, is that CAJM  provides a forum to explore these thorny and consequential issues.

“The opportunity for top curators and directors of the nation’s Jewish museums to problem-solve together is one of the aspects of this kind of work that motivates investments like CANVAS’s in networks like CAJM,” says CANVAS founder Lou Cove.

As museums have reopened their doors, Yaverbaum is driven to helping them “connect to the larger world of Jewish arts and culture which we’ve been doing actively with CANVAS, whether it’s being a liaison with the American Alliance of Museums or the Association of European Jewish Museums.”

“The power of the network within CAJM is very strong and it’s tremendously effective. It’s a very generous community, and eager to share its expertise and knowledge, and particularly effective in moving ideas along,” Yaverbaum says.

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