Decision coming on national Jewish museum in D.C.

Thursday, September 29, 2011 | by aaron leibel

Washington needs a major national museum of the Jewish people — at least, that’s what a group of local heavy hitters and international Jewish celebrities believes.

They have been trying for more than five years to get that museum built, and a decision in November will determine their success.

“Given Washington’s role as a pilgrimage point for Americans and an international audience, and given the fact that the major museum in Washington associated with Jews is the United States Holocaust Museum, I feel the other aspects of Jewish life — religion, tradition and culture — need to be explored,” says Ori Soltes, former curator of the city’s B’nai B’rith Klutznick Museum.

Daniel Liebeskind’s design for the National Museum of the Jewish People.   image/courtesy of opi soltes
Daniel Liebeskind’s design for the National Museum of the Jewish People. image/courtesy of opi soltes
Led by Soltes, the group includes Nobel Prize laureate Elie Wiesel, violinist Itzhak Perlman and members of the Snyder family of Potomac, Md., which will contribute music memorabilia for a wing of the proposed National Museum of the Jewish People (http://www.nmotjp.org). Dan Snyder owns the NFL’s Washington Redskins.

Whether the museum will be built is in the hands of the General Services Administration, which administers federal properties, including the district’s Old Post Office, a 112-year-old facility. Prodded by a cost-conscious Congress anxious to rid itself of underutilized federal properties that add to the deficit — the Old Post Office houses some 450 federal employees and loses about $5 million annually in operating costs — and authorized by the Old Post Office Redevelopment Act of 2008, the GSA issued a request for proposals to redevelop the site on Pennsylvania Avenue between the White House and the Capitol.

Several groups, including the one led by Soltes, have submitted proposals. (One of the groups reportedly is headed by Donald Trump, but Pat Daniels, GSA’s senior project manager, says she is not authorized to reveal the names of the other respondents.) A decision is expected in November.

The Soltes group is partnering with Hyatt Hotels, which would turn the Old Post Office into a luxury hotel. The museum would be located on the space currently occupied by the glass annex, which would be torn down. The group has no plans for an alternative site.

Soltes, Goldman professorial lecturer in theology and fine arts at Georgetown University, is excited by the fact that Daniel Libeskind — whose work includes San Francisco’s Contemporary Jewish Museum, the Jewish Museum Berlin and the Wohl Center at Bar-Ilan University in Israel — has designed the project.

“His enthusiasm for this project is boundless” both because of his interest in the museum and because it is his first Washington-based project, Soltes says.

The planned museum will encompass about 100,000 square feet on four floors with garden areas, an atrium and space for conferences. It will feature rotating exhibits and a permanent space devoted to subjects such as antiquities, Judaica, art, music, medicine, science and sports.

Technology to enhance those areas will include, for example, the ability to walk around a holographic reproduction of important buildings designed by Jewish architects such as Libeskind’s own Berlin museum or Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain; an interactive display in which to play a game of chess against Bobby Fisher; and the chance to hit a computerized Sandy Koufax fastball.

Raising money for the project has been a “Catch-22 situation,” Soltes says. “People are reluctant to open their pocketbooks until the GSA decides, and the GSA decision will in part depend on the amount of money raised and the potential to raise the amount needed.”

His group has raised about $500,000. To pay for the building and establish an endowment so entrance would be free, the amount needed could be in excess of $100 million.