As a founding member of the National Museum of American Jewish History I was troubled to learn of the museum’s decision regarding the discarding of time honored Shabbat observances. The museum’s administration has decided to sell tickets on Shabbat, keep the café open and rent space for Friday night events. Also the café will no longer be kosher and non-kosher catering will be allowed. As if all those changes were not enough, it was decided to change the annual marketing label “Being Jewish on Christmas” to “Being __ on Christmas”. They deleted the word ‘Jewish’ from their slogan but kept ‘Christmas’.
If the museum wants to portray American Jewish history it needs to retain that which is uniquely Jewish, namely Kashrut and Shabbat observance. I know that the museum’s intent was to attract more non-Jewish visitors to the financially challenged museum but by making those changes I think that the administration has lost its bearings and is drifting off course. If the museum intends to keep it head above water, survive and indeed thrive as a Jewish Museum it should not cast away its Jewish character, which historically has included observance of ritual. It should maintain that which was unique and differentiated the Jewish Museum from all other National museums, namely the display of the history of a people whose past is not passé but is still remembered, currently practiced and passed on from generation to generation, by those who washed up on the shores of this country.
As for the so-called restrictions of Shabbat, which are objected to by some, for others they are not constraints but cherished moments in time. Shabbat observance encourages people to embrace family matters at least one day a week by connecting with each other through study, prayer, song and conversation. Also by abrogating the observance of the laws of Shabbat and Kashrut it puts observant Jews in an awkward position when they choose not to work on Shabbat or not to eat at a non-kosher restaurant or a friend’s house. The reason is that non-Jews and Jews who are not familiar with Jewish Law may mistakenly think that a Jewish museum is an authoritative body as to what is and is not permitted according to Jewish Law. Consequently the Jew who is Sabbath observant and follows the laws of Kashrut may appear to the uninformed by continuing to observe those laws unnecessarily.
To be successful, I think that the museum should focus on what makes us a people set apart, distinctive and unique, rather than trying to blend in with the majority society. The American Jewish journey includes Jewish rituals, customs and most importantly Jewish values much of which are still with us today. Granted well-meaning peoples of all faiths share ethical values, moral imperatives, a sense of social justice and a concern for making a better world. But they do not have Kashrut and Shabbat, they are ours and they are an important part of what makes us different and special.
I am afraid that without the continued adherence to the twin bedrocks of Shabbat and Kashrut by our museum it will become no different than many other museums. It will be just an assemblage of lifeless rooms with displays of ancient civilizations which have been lost amid the rubble of their crumbled empires. Our history, which began thousands of years ago, is still vibrant and continues to be written today, as we continue our journey through the pages of history. To remove its distinctiveness by undermining its foundations of Kashrut and Shabbat, the museum will have lost its way, along with its competitive edge of truly being unique.
Take heed the Bard of Avon who wrote, “This above all: to thine own self be true.”