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Holocaust museum taps insider to direct its ‘next stage of growth

WASHINGTON, Feb. 22 (JTA) — After nearly a year without permanent leadership, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum has tapped an insider to be the museum’s new executive director. Sara Bloomfield, a 13-year veteran of the institution and the museum’s acting director since last April, was the unanimous choice of a search committee formed in October by the museum’s governing body. “We selected Sara for her fervent dedication to Holocaust remembrance, her longstanding devotion to the museum and its mission, and her proven ability to lead and manage this major international institution,” said Miles Lerman, chairman of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council, which voted to give her the job last Friday. “Such a combination of talents is rare. As this young museum moves into the next stage of its growth and the next century, the council is confident that it does so in highly energetic, capable and caring hands.” Bloomfield, who says she considers herself in many ways a “founding father of the institution,” looks at the museum as “the most important accomplishment I have in my life.” “It’s very rewarding, but at same time very humbling,” she said of her selection. “It’s a large and complex institution, but more importantly a moral obligation that I look at with deep excitement and with a lot of respect for the challenge it represents,” she said in a phone interview this week. Bloomfield, 48, a native of Cleveland, joined the museum staff in 1986 as deputy director of operations when it was still in the planning stages. She served as executive director of the museum’s council from 1988 to 1994, playing a key role in the creation of the museum, which opened its doors in 1993. Between 1994 and 1998 she served as associate director for museum programs and supervised seven of the museum’s offices. The institution she has helped build has, by all accounts, exceeded the expectations of its founders. During its first five years, the museum welcomed more than 10 million visitors, nearly four times the number initially projected. It has an operating budget of $53.6 million, 400 staff members and more than 300 volunteers. Bloomfield’s selection, however, comes after a year in which the venerable institution has navigated some rough waters. She took over as acting director last year after Walter Reich resigned in the wake of a controversy about the handling of an invitation to Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat to tour the museum. The museum extended the invitation to Arafat, retracted it, and extended it again before Arafat ultimately declined. The museum later became embroiled in controversy over its decision to hire John Roth, an internationally renowned Holocaust scholar, to head the museum’s new Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies. The museum was hit by a barrage of criticism from a handful of Jewish individuals, members of Congress and newspaper columnists over a 1988 article Roth authored in which he compared Israeli policies toward the Palestinians with the Nazis’ treatment of Jews, as well as other controversial writings. Roth resigned the post as a result of the uproar, and concerns mounted about whether such controversies would damage the image and efficacy of the institution. Bloomfield’s work in helping guide the museum through the difficulties of the past year has won praise from museum officials, who expressed confidence that her selection will help the institution turn a corner. For her part, Bloomfield said this has been “a challenging year in many ways,” but noted that as a young institution, “there are still a lot of internal things we’re working out.” “I’ve been here for lots of storms over many years,” she said, adding that she brings an understanding of the institution, the original vision of the founders and the different constituencies who all feel a sense of ownership. Museum insiders say she enjoys a good working relationship with both the museum’s council and the staff, and has the respect and admiration of many Holocaust survivors. Heading into the next century, officials are looking to her administrative skills and passion for the work of Holocaust remembrance to help meet new challenges facing the institution. For starters, Bloomfield wants to see the museum continue the process it started last year of extending its reach beyond Washington. Bloomfield launched three highly regarded traveling exhibitions, “Liberation 1945,” “Hidden History of the Kovno Ghetto” and “The Nazi Olympics Berlin 1936,” and says she wants to build on those to make the museum a national presence. In addition to expanding its educational outreach, the museum is also looking to its new Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies as a training center for a new cadre of Holocaust scholars. “I believe the museum has a very important role to play serving as a catalyst for this field,” Bloomfield said. But perhaps the biggest challenge facing the institution, she said, “is keeping the resonance and the vitality alive as the Holocaust recedes in memory and the survivors and other eyewitnesses pass from the scene.” How to go about doing that, she said, is a “major challenge for which I don’t have all the answers, but I do know it’s the question to be asking.”