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New Skirball Cultural Center Rivals Leading Jewish Museums

April 17, 1996
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A new Jewish museum and cultural center that opens this weekend here is dedicated to the dual heritage of Jews in America.

“We have 4,000 years of intellectual, spiritual and moral wisdom, and 300 years of democratic striving,” says Uri David Herscher, the Skirball Cultural Center’s founder, president and chief executive officer. “We must share both heritages with humankind and repair just a little corner of our world.”

The collection of 25,000 artifacts makes the museum one of four major repositories in the Jewish world, alongside the Israel Museum in Jerusalem and the Jewish museums in New York and Prague, Herscher says.

While the new museum introduces the visitor to the roots of Judaism, the dispersion, the Holocaust and Israel’s rebirth, its uniqueness lies in its focus, its unabashed love affair, with the Jewish experience in the United States.

The center, which is affiliated with the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College, will open to the Public on Sunday, after 15 year of conception, planning, design, prayer, fund raising, setbacks and construction.

Designed by famed Haifa-born architect Moshe Safdie, the 3-story building is anchored to the bottom of a hillside, and is overshadowed by dark green crests and ridges, where the Santa Monica Mountains bisect the Los Angeles Basin to the south and the San Fernando Valley to the north.

Some 150,000 visitors a year are expected.

Inside the museum, the permanent core exhibit depicts Jewish history as both a chronological timeline and as a recurring cycle of holidays and life milestones.

Walking on a Jerusalem stone floor, the visitor begins the tour with God’s injunction to Abraham to go forth and be a blessing to the world.

To the right is a large outdoor replica of the arcade and mosaic pavement of a Tiberias synagogue from the third century C.E.

The Journey Gallery depicts the dispersion of the Jewish people, tracing the routes, artifacts and customs of the multiple exiles, from Spain to Eastern Europe to China. The next gallery is devoted to the meanings and utensils of Jewish holidays.

Customs and rituals of birth, marriage and death are portrayed in the Life Cycle gallery. Through interactive video displays, visitors can obtain additional information and even input their own life cycle experiences, including those that are Jewish, Hispanic, black or Asian.

An introduction to sacred spaces is dominated by a replica of the ornate ark and bimah from the 19th-century New Synagogue in Berlin.

The innovative Discovery Center enables amateur archaeologists of all ages to dig with proper tools through geological time, view sections of a tell and an ancient shaft tomb, and absorb the history of light, from an oil lamp to the flashlight.

Having briefly traversed millenia of Jewish history, visitors arrive in North America, from the viewpoint of their forefathers and mothers, passing in stages from fresh immigrants, through “struggle and opportunity,” to integration.

The first startling sight is a massive replica of the Statue of Liberty’s hand and torch, four-fifths its actual size, which reaches from floor to high ceiling.

Adjoining are actual Ellis Island benches, occupied by generations of immigrants, and a turn-of-the-century Jewish kitchen, complete with recipes. Letters, documents, photos and memorabilia depict the struggle of the pioneer union organizers, social workers, artisans and tradesmen.

“The center is meant to serve all of North America and beyond,” Herscher says. “It will tell the story of the unprecedented opportunity which America offered its immigrants, and in turn immigrants offered America.”

In the next room, a high-tech, multimedia presentation on eight elevated screens celebrates the contributions of great American Jews. Five vintage television sets screen the major news events, from a primarily Jewish perspective, of the last 50 years.

Adjoining is a gallery dedicated to the Zionist vision, and a more somber montage documents anti-Semitism in America.

The collection in the Americana Study Gallery includes everything from Yiddish song sheets, political buttons and kosher scouring powder to “tzedakah pushkes” (coin boxes for charity).

Two purposely modest montages in the permanent exhibit mark the darkest and brightest Jewish chapters of the 20th century. One deals with the Holocaust, symbolized by six Jewish faces and an eternal flame. The other celebrates the rebirth of Israel and includes mostly original documents marking major milestones in U.S.-Israeli relations.

A molding force of 54-year-old Uri Herscher, and by extension the Skirball center, has been the immigrant experience.

Born in Tel Aviv to German-Jewish immigrants, Herscher left Israel shortly before his Bar Mitzvah, when his parents decided to move to California. The family settled in San Jose, where his father worked as a cabinet maker.

The young Herscher had left Israel in tears, but in contrast to many Jewish kids, and other immigrants, he found a warm welcome in the then largely agricultural community.

He recalls that “a large proportion of my classmates were Asian, African- American and Latinos, and they made me feel at home, at a time when I was still struggling with English.”

He adds that the “Skirball Cultural Center happened because of the sense of rebirth that America allowed me.”

Today, as a rabbi and professor of American Jewish history, Herscher rejects the term “Diaspora” to categorize the status of American Jewry.

“There are different centers of Jewish life,” he says. “One is in Israel, one is in North America and there may be one in the former Soviet Union.”

He earned an undergraduate degree at the University of California at Berkeley and then transferred to the Cincinnati campus of Hebrew Union College, where he was ordained as a Reform rabbi and later earned a doctorate in Jewish history.

In 1979, Herscher joined the HUC’s Los Angeles campus as dean of its faculty and executive vice president for the four HUC campuses in the United States and Israel.

Herscher puts the price tag for the center at $65 million, but it is starting out debt-free and mortgage-free, with the additional cushion of a $25 million endowment fund. The estimated annual operating budget is $3.5 million, which includes salaries for the 40-person staff.

The center’s chief benefactor has been the Skirball Foundation, which committed $30 million to the project. Support has also come from a number of leading corporate and family foundations in California, and from private contributors in 23 states.

As a Jewish cultural center, combining performing arts, educational programs, conferences and museum exhibits, the Skirball center is the largest of its kind in North America, Herscher says.

He visualizes its impact as extending well beyond Los Angeles.

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