How to keep the Sabbath holy - and the Jewish museum open?

Chief executive Michael Rosenzweig in the new National Museum of American Jewish History, which had been inside a synagogue - and closed Saturdays. "There was not a simple answer," he said.
Chief executive Michael Rosenzweig in the new National Museum of American Jewish History, which had been inside a synagogue - and closed Saturdays. "There was not a simple answer," he said.
Posted: October 17, 2010

For nearly 4,000 years, the phrase has been a bedrock among observant Jews:

"Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy."

The Fourth Commandment has the power to still storefronts, fill synagogues, and turn the sidewalks of some neighborhoods into a sea of black-cloaked Orthodox Jews from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday as they fulfill the obligation to enjoy a day of rest.

But ancient practice created a very contemporary predicament for the National Museum of American Jewish History, which will open its new building off Independence Mall on Nov. 26. And dealing with the sanctity of the Sabbath required a Solomonic solution.

Should the museum be open Saturdays - even though Jewish law forbids work and commercial transactions?

Or should the museum be closed Saturdays - missing out on up to a quarter of its anticipated admission revenue, and turning away thousands of visitors who want to learn about 350 years of the American Jewish experience?

"There was not a simple answer," said Michael Rosenzweig, the museum's president and chief executive officer.

So in August, a committee from the board of directors was appointed to review the situation.

Members polled one another and found no consensus. They canvassed rabbis. No consensus. They questioned high-profile Jewish-related museums around the country for their policies.

The Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York closes for the Sabbath and Jewish holidays. The Jewish Museum in New York is open on the Sabbath, although its gift shop is closed. The Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco and the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles and their gift shops are open on the Sabbath. The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, a federal institution, is open every day except for Yom Kippur and Christmas.

In other words, no consensus.

Rosenzweig viewed what he called "a robust discussion" as presenting a "teachable moment, consistent with our mission and at the same time demonstrating appropriate sensitivity to our tradition."

"We're a Jewish institution, but not a religious institution," said Rosenzweig. "We're reaching out to the Jewish community and to the non-Jewish community, to inspire in all Americans a greater appreciation for the remarkable accomplishments of American Jews, for both themselves and the nation."

The board had never had to deliberate such a question until now. In its current location, less than two blocks away, the museum is closed on the Sabbath and all Jewish holidays because it is located within Congregation Mikveh Israel, a synagogue.

"The decisions we faced were just a paradigm of the American Jewish experience," said Matthew Kamens, a lawyer and board member, referring to tenets such as religious freedom and the impact of assimilation. "We had to make a decision to find a way that balances the economic viability of the institution, while at the same time not abandoning important values."

Mimi Schneirov, a management consultant and board member who heads the museum's education committee, said: "I know that it was a very thoughtful discussion, with people speaking from all points of view. I myself am more restrictive [about the Sabbath hours], but I also recognize this is not a religious institution.

"I also recognize we're really trying to attract people from all different religions. It's an opportunity for people to learn who we are as a people and as a religion."

Rosenzweig estimated that the museum, founded in 1976, would draw 250,000 people annually, including Saturday hours.

This month, the committee took its recommendations to the board, which approved an unusual and nuanced approach:

The museum will be open Saturdays, but tickets for Saturdays will not be sold on the museum's premises that day. They must be purchased online or in advance, or on Saturdays outside the museum, at special kiosks at to-be-determined locations.

The museum's gift shop will be open Saturdays, but no cash will be handled that day. Any credit-card transactions will be processed after sundown Saturday.

In addition, the museum will be closed the two days of Rosh Hashanah (the new year), on Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement), and the first two days of Passover.

"It's kind of a compromise," Rosenzweig said. "We do not claim that this policy is dictated by Halakha," or Jewish law. "It's a policy the board embraced for its symbolic power, showing that in Jewish tradition, Shabbat and holidays are different."

Observant staff will have the option of not working on the Sabbath and holidays, he said. The cafe will be closed on the Sabbath and holidays, and museum facilities, such as event space, may not be rented on those days.

"It's no different from what Sandy Koufax did," said Kamens, referring to the long-ago star pitcher for the Brooklyn and Los Angeles Dodgers, who is Jewish. In a personal compromise that reverberated in the Jewish world, Koufax, who routinely pitched on the Sabbath, declined to play in Game 1 of the 1965 World Series in order to observe Yom Kippur.

Two rabbis unaffiliated with the museum commended the board on its deliberations.

"Bravo to the attempt to work this through," said Rabbi Lance J. Sussman of Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel in Elkins Park, who compared the advance-purchase option to Jewish resorts that presell meal scrips so patrons can dine on the Sabbath.

"I am impressed that they care at all. That is progress in the right direction," said Rabbi Dov Halperin of Knesset Hasefer, an Orthodox congregation in Yardley. "That said, I have to be honest. The issue is conducting business on [the Sabbath], and it must be avoided. Whether they sell tickets [on or off the premises], it's a business transaction."

The decision whether to open or close likely would not have been debated among European Jews in the 19th century, Rosenzweig said.

"Everyone knew who was Jewish. You didn't have the choice of opting out [of religious observance], as American Jews do. Jews now enjoy freedoms unprecedented in our history, and this tension between freedom and tradition is at the core of the American Jewish experience."


Contact staff writer Michael Klein at mklein@phillynews.com.

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