We’re not in exile, and this museum is catching on

Beit Hatfutsot — Tel Aviv’s Diaspora Museum — is one of those must-see stops on a Jewish visit to Israel. Since its opening in 1978, the museum has presented a big-picture overview of 4,000 years of Jewish history, hitting all the major calamities and upheavals as well as celebrating the diversity of world Jewish experience.

The museum’s narrative has always been directional, a one-way historical journey that culminates in Israel. Those Jews who continue to live elsewhere are in exile — they are (we are) the diaspora.

So I was surprised to see, on a visit to the museum this summer, that the English sign outside the front door no longer says “Diaspora Museum” but “The Museum of the Jewish People.” I asked Dan Tadmor, the CEO of Beit Hatfutsot since December 2012, about it as soon as I sat down with him.

He grinned, looking sideways at the two women who had escorted me into the room. Had they coached me? No, I said. I’ve been to the museum enough times over the years to notice a signage change of that magnitude. I knew something was afoot.

Yes indeed, Tadmor acknowledged. The museum has recently changed its English name to reflect its evolving understanding of the symbiotic relationship between Jews living inside and outside of Israel. They are equal communities, he said.

“The distinction between Israel and the diaspora is no longer relevant,” he told me. “The notion is a bit outdated, reflective of the conversation that took place during Israel’s first two decades — that you’re not a good Jew if you don’t make aliyah.”

In dropping the “d” word from its English name, the museum is joining the ranks of other major Israeli institutions, notably the Jewish Agency and the government of Israel itself, that have in recent years reassessed their attitude toward Jews who persist in living outside the Jewish state, seeing them not as second class but as partners in the ongoing effort to strengthen a global Jewish identity. (The Hebrew name of the museum remains the same, constrained by national law.)

That’s the concept, anyway. And in the museum’s case, I believe it. Not only because I’ve seen the plans for the museum’s $82 million makeover, but because I suspect Tadmor picked up some Bay Area notions of Jewish pluralism during the three years he spent in San Francisco, 1973 to 1976, when his father, Shlomo Tadmor, served as the Israeli consul general here. Dan Tadmor attended Brandeis Hillel Day School from fourth through sixth grade.

“I have very fond memories,” said Tadmor, who lived with his parents in the city’s Pacific Heights neighborhood. “Those were bad years to be a Giants fan, but good years to be a Warriors fan.”

Museum staff and outside experts have spent the past two years designing a new core exhibition, which will form the centerpiece of a new 61,000-square-foot museum set to be the world’s largest Jewish museum when it is completed by the end of 2017. This core display — the story of the Jewish people — will include actual artifacts (up to now, the museum only used reproductions) and will be multimedia as well as interactive, encouraging visitors to add their input.

Don’t worry, the Synagogue Hall isn’t going anywhere. The museum’s most popular exhibit, with its scale models of key synagogues from around the world, is now partially closed, but will reopen in 2015 with a full complement of 18 dollhouse-size shuls and three large, partial re-creations of famous synagogues from, uh, the diaspora.

Other things besides the name will be different in the new permanent exhibition. For one, it will include Reform congregations, living room minyans, female rabbis and same-sex wedding ceremonies. No big deal in the Bay Area, but significant in Israel.

“That was a serious conversation,” Tadmor said, referring to staff discussions of how far to push the liberal envelope. “But we are a pluralistic institution. The definition of Jewish identity we have adopted is Jewish Peoplehood.”

That’s good, and a lot better than the Israeli Rabbinate’s definition.


Sue Fishkoff

Sue Fishkoff is the editor of J. She can be reached at sue@jweekly.com.