The Jewish Children's Museum Nears Completion


by S. Olidort - BROOKLYN, NY

March 10, 2003

For several years now, the constant activity of crawler dozers, backhoes and tractor loaders made an already busy thoroughfare in Crown Heights more restrictive to pedestrian traffic and parking needs. The relentless cacophony of heavy construction equipment at work became the constant background noise in the lives of residents, office workers and businesses in the immediate area. But things are looking different now at the intersection of Kingston and Eastern Parkway, as a significant structure rises up on its southeast corner, directly opposite the world headquarters of the Chabad-Lubavitch Movement.

The Jewish Children’s Museum is in its final stages of construction. Situated on Brooklyn's famous museum row, just blocks away from the Brooklyn Museum of Art, the Brooklyn Children’s Museum, the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens, and the central branch of the Brooklyn Public Library at Grand Army Plaza, the seven-story, 55,000 square foot structure is already turning heads, catching the attention of thousands who drive daily interboro along Eastern Parkway.

A project of Tzivos Hashem, Chabad's worldwide Jewish children's outreach organization founded by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, the museum will appeal to a diverse audience, Jewish and gentile, religious and secular, says its executive director, Rabbi Yerachmiel Benjaminson.According to Sheldon Silver, speaker of the New State Assembly,"when this museum is completed any child, any child will be able to walk through its doors."

Designed by Gwathmey, Siegel & Associates, an architectural firm whose previous works have included the Guggenheim Museum and the Disney Convention Center, the Jewish Children’s Museum will merge traditional values and modern technology in a high-tech infrastructure designed to suit its mission of learning and wonder. The firm's inspiration for undertaking the project, says partner Robert Siegel, was multi-faceted. The site's location in Crown Heights, "with its history of conflict and coexistence between the Orthodox and Black communities (made) the idea of creating a museum, which would facilitate a better understanding of Jewish history and customs. . . .inspirational," he says. And the building's dual roles as museum and local community center gave the designers further challenge, adding a greater dimension to the project.

The 25-million dollar museum will be dedicated to the memory of Ari Halberstam, a Lubavitch student and local resident who was gunned down in an act of terror on the Brooklyn Bridge in 1996. The project has garnered major government support and funding at the local and state levels, through his mother, Mrs. Devorah Halberstam.

Children's museums are "audience centered," as opposed to the typical collection-based museums, and focus on involving children so that they are not merely observers, but active participants in the museum-going process. The Jewish Children's Museum, notes its exhibition writer and consultant, Paul Rosenthal—whose expertise has been retained as well for the expansion of the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Battery Park City—has taken this a step further in its attempt to convey concepts as broad as the Messianic era, and as subtle as faith, in a manner that is fun and interactive.

That puts the museum on the far end of a lively, activity-based center, and has given Rosenthal a freer reign on how he proposes to convey the subject matter. It also poses a greater challenge for the writer, who worked together with Gershon Eichorn, the museum's director of design and exhibitions, to come up with exhibits that satisfy the educational objectives of the museum while fully engaging children with even the shortest attention span. "There are no cases in this museum, and no 'please don't touch' signs," says Eichorn. "Here children of all ages will be able to explore Judaism through exciting, hands-on activities."

Subject matter like the entire span of Jewish history, dating back to creation, is difficult for children to relate to, notes Rabbi Leibel Newman, administrator at Yeshivas Toras Chayim of the South Shore, who was on the board of educators consulted for the planning of The Jewish Children's Museum. "But when children are given the opportunity to literally walk through time, they are able to grasp the concept of sequence, of cause and effect, so that stories they have learned from the book suddenly come to life, and become real."

In addition to two floors worth of permanent Jewish heritage and history exhibitions, the museum will feature temporary, seasonal exhibitions. A full-sized state-of-the-art game show theater on the lower level will give children the opportunity to put their knowledge of Judaism to the test. Videoconferencing will keep the museum connected to the internet so that children internationally will be able to participate in the various museum functions.

With maximum capacity at 2,000, the museum expects to host hundreds of schoolchildren on a typical weekday and hundreds more with their families during weekends and vacations, with yearly visitations at close to 300,000.

A synagogue, kosher cafeteria, a gift shop, library, computer rooms, and a "kosher" movie theater with seating for one hundred, make the museum especially attractive to community members, says director of administration, Rabbi Sholom Ber Baumgarten. After-hours, the museum expects to draw hundreds of local children for arts and crafts projects, music lessons, computer activities, and a host of other after-school programs—a much-needed benefit for the local community.

"There's a real sense of joy to the museum," says Rosenthal. Exploring the story of the Jewish people across time, space, and subcultures, the museum scratches beneath the surface of superficial differences. "It's very much a living museum about a thriving community of people and how it continues to evolve."

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