As Jewish Museums, How Do We Transcend Boundaries?

Melissa Martens Yaverbaum, Council of American Jewish Museums Executive Director, at CAJM Annual Conference

Established in 1977, the Council of American Jewish Museums (CAJM) strengthens the Jewish museum field in North America by training museum staff and volunteers, advocating on behalf of Jewish museums, and fostering a collegial network. This year’s annual CAJM conference explored the challenges, opportunities, and strategies for stimulating new thinking for the future of Jewish museums in America. The Jewish Museum’s Grace Astrove, Development Officer for Exhibitions and Natalia Miller, Special Events Manager, attended the conference and asked: as Jewish museums, how do we transcend boundaries?

Jewish cultural institutions are at a crossroads. Museums are equipped to overcome boundaries of all kinds and adapt to changes, but as CAJM Executive Director Melissa Martens Yaverbaum explained, “Museums can no longer simply be the collectors and keepers of our heritage; they must also be dynamic environments and centers for cultural exploration.”

Attendee at the Council of American Jewish Museums Annual Conference

In the year 2017, how do we as Jewish museums, better understand and serve our new audiences, including millennials and non-traditional Jewish museum visitors? Opening the conference, Fern Chertok of Brandeis University coined the term “Minhag Millennials”: Jews who identify as being Jewish, but don’t necessarily have the typical Jewish education or background. Accordingly, Chertok’s 2015 report on Millennial Children of Intermarriage released by the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis University found that 60% of millennials identifying as Jews are from intermarriage, and that this form of identity is becoming more normative in the Jewish community. This group has a history of bi-culturalism, which is central to their identity. Engaging with this group therefore has been a way to engage not only millennials, but also their multi-faith families.

Many Jewish organizations today are also grappling with how to be more inclusive with their constituents overall. Identifying this urgency as millennials ourselves, we organized a panel discussion exploring a variety of approaches to engaging the next generation of Jewish museum visitors and patrons. The speakers, Victoria Rogers of Kickstarter Arts, Graham Wright of the Opus Affair, and Josephine Ho of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston presented on social engagement strategies, new fundraising techniques, and the state of young patron programs. In order to reach this group of individuals who are exceedingly diverse in their wants and needs, Jewish museums need to be varied, engaging, and purposeful in their offerings. As the future generation of constituents and supporters, this is a vital time for Jewish museums to understand and appreciate this group.

Grace Astrove with “Millennials: Engaging the Next Generation of Supporters” presenters Graham Wright, the Opus Affair; Victoria Rogers of Kickstarter Arts; and Josephine Ho, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Jewish museums can also be places of cross-cultural gathering and advocacy. The Jewish History Museum & Holocaust History Center in Tucson, Arizona, began a tolerance and diversity-training program for the Tucson Police Department through learning about the Holocaust, which included meeting with survivors. After the success of the program, they’ve begun new partnerships and collaborations with other community organizations by simply providing space or knowledge-based resources. These new partnerships have helped to bring in new audiences and to create cross-cultural narratives in the Tucson Jewish story.

This year’s conference provided three days of stimulating and illuminating conversations about the state of our organizations. We have reached a turning point where we must challenge what it means to be a Jewish museum today. In order to remain impactful and relevant, we need to expand our traditional audience boundaries and programming expectations. The strides that many Jewish institutions have already made are exceptional, and we look forward to seeing more progress, more discussion, and more collaboration yet to come.

— Grace Astrove, Development Officer for Exhibitions and Natalia Miller, Special Events Manager