Visitor Engagement for Social Change: Reflections from the Capital Jewish Museum

By Kai Walther, Operations & Program Manager

Last week, I had the opportunity to go to an opening preview of the Capital Jewish Museum. Because Stephany Fry, our Director of Public Programs, used to work there, she was able to bring me and Alex (Director of Small Business Development & External Relations) to see the new museum. 

Located a short walk from the Judiciary Square metro station, part of the museum building was actually home to the first purpose-built historic synagogue in DC. Dedicated by the Adas Israel congregation in 1876, the building later became a Greek orthodox church, soap store, and even a pork barbecue restaurant. In 1969, a group of Jewish Washingtonians lobbied Congress to spare the building from demolition and then moved it down the street. The Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington restored the historic synagogue, and now the building is part of DC’s only museum exploring regional Jewish history. 

Inside the museum, next to the entrance, is an introductory exhibit about Jewish stories in DC, Maryland, and Virginia, from 1790 to today. The exhibit is housed in the historic synagogue section of the museum and includes a brick - that you can touch! - from the original building. Up the stairs from the exhibit is an immersive room with rows of restored pews - that you can sit on! - from various synagogues around DC. The walls around you show videos of scenes from and recorded recollections of early Jewish life in the city. 

After exiting the synagogue, you enter the “heart” of the museum. The main        exhibition is titled “Connect. Reflect. Act.” and is full of interactive material. Most tangible are the soft cubes - that you can pick up! - each highlighting various identities of notable Jewish Washingtonians. There is also a massive virtual map of Jewish community and life across the region. iPads at the map allow visitors to delve into specific neighborhoods, businesses, and years. When the museum opens on June 9th, there will also be an area to engage in conversation around contemporary issues and debates. The final section of the main exhibit is a Passover Seder table where visitors can discuss stories of liberation. 

The last section that we explored was a sort of maker space. There we were tasked with creating scrapbook pages that reflected our thoughts on the museum, social justice, and community. I chose to recreate the cubes from the main exhibit. Instead of identity markers, however, I wrote down phrases or themes of the museum that resonated with me most. 

Though at times the sheer amount of information and interactivity options overwhelmed me, I was overall impressed with the museum’s choice to cover so many aspects of and actors in DMV Jewish history. Furthermore, the emphasis on social justice and community conversation through exhibit topics and visitor engagement made me not only want to learn more about Judaism and Jewish history, but also take action for a cause I believe in.

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