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Jewish Children’s Museum to Teach Traditions to a Broad Range of Visitors

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At a time when Jewish groups are exploring ways of making Judaism relevant to the younger generation, construction is under way in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn for a $19.5 million children’s museum designed to do just that.

More than 400 people — among them New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and a who’s who of other New York politicians — turned out Sept. 8 for a festive groundbreaking of the Jewish Children’s Museum, believed to be the first-ever institution of its kind.

Scheduled to open in 2001, the museum — which expects to see 120,000 visitors a year — will use technology and hands-on activities to teach Jewish history, values and traditions to the elementary school set.

While there are already more than 400 children’s museums in the United States and 80 Jewish museums, this will be the first large-scale institution to blend the two missions.

Museum planners have hired the architectural firm Gwathmey Siegel and Associates, which designed the Guggenheim Museum addition and the American Museum of the Moving Image.

Douglas J. Gallagher, a firm that did similar work for The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland and the Smithsonian Institute in Washington D.C., is designing the exhibits.

“In the beginning we thought of this as a much smaller project, but then we thought this has to be done in a way that ensures Jewish and non-Jewish people take this seriously,” said Rabbi Yerachmiel Benjaminson, executive director of Tzvios Hashem, the Lubavitch children’s organization responsible for developing the museum.

Among the more than 42 exhibits planned for the new museum: a larger-than-life Shabbat dinner table that children can climb on, with computer terminals that look like matzah balls, and a Tu B’Shvat exhibit in which children can climb trees and — by pulling fruit — activate stories and songs. The museum will also sponsor arts and crafts workshops on Jewish themes.

Although the museum is an offshoot of a Lubavitch-sponsored children’s organization and will be located on Eastern Parkway, across the street from the world headquarters of the Lubavitch movement, leaders say they are designing it to appeal to a broad spectrum of visitors.

A museum consultant, Mindy Duitz, interviewed staff at 20 Jewish day schools, afternoon Hebrew schools and camps and spoke with 80 individuals from different sectors of the Jewish community to find out what features might make them likely — or not likely — to attend.

She found concerns about proselytizing, gender discrimination and contents being “biased towards one perspective,” concerns Benjaminson said the museum will address.

“People should feel they’re coming to a learning experience, not one saying you must do this or must do that,” he said. “It’s giving an enjoyable feeling of what Jewish traditions are all about. We’ve tried to stay away from anything controversial.”

The museum will also welcome non-Jewish visitors and, according to its mission statement, provide “a setting for non-Jewish children to gain a positive perspective and awareness of the Jewish heritage, fostering tolerance and understanding.”

Crown Heights is a working class mixed-race neighborhood with a history of black-Jewish tensions that culminated in riots eight years ago.

But museum leaders say the new institution will benefit the entire community, and they are making efforts not just to ensure smooth relations but to present the museum as an instrument for promoting tolerance and understanding in the neighborhood.

At the groundbreaking, Benjaminson said, “Crown Heights will become a model community where people will become inspired because here is communication and harmony.”

Although the museum aims to reach beyond the Lubavitch community, the Sept. 8 groundbreaking had a decidedly Orthodox flavor.

Men and women were seated in separate sections — both at the ceremony and at a lunch reception following it. A picture of the late Lubavitch rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, hung prominently on the dais.

Although the previous week Orthodox Jews from another Brooklyn neighborhood, Borough Park, took to the streets protesting Giuliani and the New York police after officers shot dead a mentally ill Jewish man wielding a hammer, no such tensions were evident in Crown Heights. The mayor was applauded and community members in the audience warmly chatted with the numerous police officers maintaining security there.

Almost all the speakers effusively praised Devorah Halberstam, the museum’s director of foundation and government services and a vocal advocate since the project’s inception. The museum is dedicated to the memory of her son, Ari, a yeshiva student who was murdered when Rashid Baz, a Lebanese immigrant, opened fire on a van full of Lubavitch teens on the Brooklyn Bridge in 1994.

An animated presence who did not deliver a speech, but circulated with ease throughout the crowd after the ceremony, Halberstam said she felt “wonderful about life, hope and vision” at the groundbreaking.

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