Avinoam Armoni loves Jewish family trees, and wants to collect them. All of them.
Sounds quixotic, but as CEO of Beit Hatfutsot, Israel’s Museum of the Jewish People, Armoni knows he has a big story to tell. And part of it involves rounding up as many Jewish family trees as possible.
It’s just one of his plans for the institution formerly known (in English) as the Museum of the Diaspora.
Beit Hatfutsot opened its Tel Aviv doors in 1978. The museum has had its ups and downs since then, but Armoni hopes to launch a metamorphosis for it, both physically and philosophically.
“The conceptual change is that the museum tells the story of the Jewish people, not just the diaspora,” Armoni said during a recent swing through the Bay Area. “Therefore the story begins with Abraham and Sarah, and it does not really end. Whoever walks into the museum adds his or her personal story — we are all part of the story.”
Armoni says he will gut much of the current museum and build a new $45 million facility on its Tel Aviv University site. It will feature a newly redesigned core exhibit, auditorium, classrooms and state-of-the-art technology.
With fundraising more than halfway to the goal, Armoni expects construction to begin next year, with the new museum opening in 2013.
The hope is that the new Beit Hatfutsot will once again become a major draw for tourists and Israelis, who once flocked to the museum by the hundreds of thousands every year. Those numbers have dwindled drastically in more recent years, thanks in large part to an outmoded mission statement.
The initial aim of Beit Hatfutsot, Armoni says, was “to tell the story of the diaspora. The [founders] came from Europe, post-Holocaust. The concept was to tell their story, starting with the destruction of Second Temple, while the end of story was the beginning of the Zionist movement. That was the final chapter of the diaspora in their eyes. Everyone would pack their bags and come to Israel.”
Unfortunately for them, not all Jews packed their bags. Diaspora Jews continued to thrive, especially in North America — and thus, according to Armoni, the museum left them out of the story.
Other stories left out were those of Jewish women, Sephardic Jews, Mizrachi Jews from Arab lands, Falash Mura from Ethiopia and other non-Ashkenazi Jewish populations. The Jewish universe is vast, and Armoni intends to include all in the new Beit Hatfutsot.
“We are not trying to define who is a Jew,” Armoni says. “This is open to anyone who wants to discover their roots, values and history.”
Born in Jerusalem, Armoni earned a law degree from Hebrew University and a master’s of public administration from Harvard. He went on to have a distinguished career in pushing for pluralism and democracy in Israel.
He served as chair of the Technological College of Beersheva and as vice president for external relations at the Hebrew University. As executive director of the New Israel Fund from 1991 to 1997 he represented the liberal organization internationally, growing its budget from $5 million to $17 million.
Armoni later volunteered to help Beit Hatfutsot with long-term strategic planning, and when a vacancy opened up in the top slot, he threw his hat in the ring.
His Jewish family tree plan is no pipe dream. Partnering with Myheritage.com, and the Douglas E. Goldman Genealogy Center, Beit Hatfutsot is attempting to compile the world’s largest database on Jewish family histories. About 3 million names have already been entered, and anyone who wants to can participate by downloading family tree software from the museum’s Web site.
For Armoni, Beit Hatfutsot is more than a job. He believes in the mission.
“When you come here, you start at a replica of the Titus Gate, where Romans carried off Jewish slaves,” he says. “Two thousand years later we are standing in the middle of the largest Jewish university in the world, speaking the same language of 2,000 years before.
“We are alive, and our captors? Well, not even doctors speak Latin anymore. We have survived, and that’s the journey you take in our institution.”
For more information about Beit Hatfusot, visit www.bh.org.il.