The hidden beauty of things

Tucked away beside the Great Synagogue, the Heichal Shlomo Judaica museum takes an unusual educational approach.

great synagogue 88 (photo credit: )
great synagogue 88
(photo credit: )
So wrote the late poet Yehuda Amichai of Hechal Shlomo, the downtown Jerusalem museum that aims to teach Jewish values and heritage through Judaica. Late last week, Orly Broide, the museum's Educational Director, smilingly brought some 30 fascinated second-graders from the secular Dror School of Mevaseret Zion to order and began asking them questions. "Where are we?" A child volunteers an answer, "In a synagogue." Broide explains that although there are two Sefer Torahs on display behind her, they are not in a synagogue, but in a museum. The children are requested to point out to her the things they notice in the hall: siddurim, a menorah, a chair for the circumcision ceremony. With the help of questions, Brodie explains the difference between Sephardi and Ashkenazi Sefer Torahs. "The museum is a repository for our culture and our history and of that we should all be proud," says Broide. Known now as the Jewish Life Museum, Hechal Shlomo was founded in 1958 by Reb Yehuda Bialer, a Holocaust survivor who worked with the Religious Affairs Ministry in tracing Jewish heritage artifacts confiscated by the Nazis. It underwent a transformation in 2000 at the hands of the director and curator Yehuda Levy-Aldema, who designed each exhibit as a springboard for a discussion of Jewish values. Before 2000 the number of annual visitors was 3,000. By 2004 it had risen to 10,000 and in 2005, that figure has already been surpassed. "On the surface the exhibition is similar to any other Judaica exhibition, but if one looks closer each exhibit is designed to trigger questions which reach deep into our heritage and our history, according to its value," says Levy-Aldema as he guides. Broide, who joined the museum staff in June, relates that the museum has developed new educational programs since the summer.The museum targets potential visitors of all ages, "from gan to golden age," religious and secular, with an especial emphasis on children. Three times a week the museum is given over to tours, workshops and activities aimed at schoolchildren. Today's Kabbalat Sefer Torah program has brought a total of 90 children to the museum, split up into three groups. While a guide speaks to one, another is entertained with activities in the diorama room and yet a third enjoys a workshop conducted by sofer stam (scribe) Avraham Borshevsky, creator of the largest mezuza in the world - a fact recorded in the Guinness Book of World Records. Borshevsky shows the children a feather and explains to them that although in the movies scribes are shown writing with real feathers, in reality this is rather uncomfortable and therefore the down is removed, leaving only the spine with which to write. The scribe takes the children on a journey into the world of parchment, Hebrew letters, tefillin, mezuzot and ink. The museum also offers Jewish year-cycle projects. For example, in September, says Broide, an evening slihot program was held for sixth- and seventh-graders. Four hours were spent at the museum followed by a tour of the synagogues in Nahlaot. For Hanukka, a special exhibition and related activities have been planned as well as a three-day festival. A touching display is the window dedicated to the traditional ritual of netilat yadaim, "The Washing of the Hands." This ritual, which necessitates the use of a special vessel, is traditionally performed upon awaking, before eating bread, after the bathroom and before prayer. "Why do we need it?" Levy-Aldema asks his audience. "What is it?" He points to the uppermost shelf on which rest side-by-side a vessel dating back to the period of the Second Temple and its 2005 plexiglass version with embedded colored flowers. The curator draws attention to the almost identical size of the two vessels, and the fact that both have two handles. Among a selection of these silver and copper vessels there is a simple plastic one which costs approximately NIS 10. "We exhibit the cheap plastic one to show that we don't need expensive or art deco for [the vessel], the idea is what you do with it." At the back of the exhibit is a black-and-white photograph of two young boys performing the netilat yadaim ritual, each wearing a cloth Star of David on his sleeve. "In some exhibitions we also show how the item was in use at the time of the Holocaust," says Levy-Aldema. He points to the photo. "These boys are in the Warsaw Ghetto." An open siddur on display, "Siddur Shel Miri," belonged to a woman who was killed in a terrorist attack on a bus full of children in Kfar Darom in 2002. It is open at a page which contains her own prayers added in pencil. All of the exhibits have been designed to offer fresh perspectives on familiar objects. In front of a 16th-century Italian Torah Scroll ark, a lock and key from a synagogue destroyed by the Nazis hangs in mid-air. Other parts of the museum include an exhibit about the history of the synagogue, a presentation on women's place in Jewish life and the bar-and-bat mitzva tour. A favorite of young children is the Diorama room, which houses glass cases depicting key stations in the history of the Jewish people made up of three-dimensional scenes and populated with tiny toy figures. The dioramas on display include the splitting of the Red Sea, the Holy Ark arriving at the Temple in Jerusalem, Joshua conquering Jericho and the Revelation at Mount Sinai. In this same room, with coaching from guides, the children are also encouraged to act out certain scenes to their unadulterated delight. "This museum is about values," says Levy-Aldema, "not about the artifacts themselves, their financial or artistic value, but about their role in the survival of the Jewish people." "The museum is a repository for our culture and our history and of that we should all be proud," says Broide.