An Interview with Irina Nevzlin, Chair of the Board of Directors  of Beit Hatfutsot–The Museum of the Jewish People

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Irina Nevzlin, Chairperson of the Board of Directors of Beit Hatfutsot (The Museum of the Diaspora) in Tel Aviv (Photo Credit: Yechiel Yanai)
Bob Dylan exhibit at Beit Hatsutsot in Tel Aviv. (Photo Credit: Aviv Hofi)
A detailed replica of an historic European synagogue at Beit Hatfutsot gives visitors a rare glimpse into Jewish life in the previous century
Interactive exhibits thrill kids of all ages at Beit Hatfutsot
This young man is learning more about the history of Jewish boxers as he gets familiar with an interactive heavy bag at an exhibit at Beit Hatfutsot
An ancient menorah welcomes visitors to Beit Hatsutsot in this exhibit that asks “Apart from Prayer; How is the Synagogue Use?”

Q.  How did your childhood in the former Soviet Union shape your Jewish identity?

A. I was raised in a blue-collar neighborhood in Moscow. In Russia the only religion was Communism and we were forbidden to talk about our Judaism. My family suppressed our Jewish identity. In fact, I did not even know that I was Jewish until the age of seven when someone in my school called me a Jew in a derogatory manner. My grandmother, who was a teacher at the school, decided to tell me the truth about my identity. “I am going to tell you two things,” she said to me. “There are two Jews in this entire school. You and I. And we are not going to say another word about it ever again.” It was a defining moment for me. We never spoke about it again, until a visit to Israel when I was 13 years old.

Visiting the Kotel was one of the most meaningful and defining moments of my life. I was overwhelmed and so excited to be standing there. At the age of 14, I transferred to a Jewish school in Moscow and this continued my journey. I was surrounded by other Jews. For the first time I understood what it meant to be a Jew, that I was part of something much bigger. I belonged to a group much wider than my own immediate family in Russia. I was proud to be Jewish and a part of this diverse yet connected family. There, in my new Jewish school, my Jewish identity was born.

Q. Why did you get involved with Beit Hatfutsot?

A. Upon arrival in Israel, 10 years ago, the late Prime Minister Ariel Sharon approached my family to help save Beit Hatfutsot – which had become dated and was on the verge of closing its doors. As a girl growing up in Russia, I knew little about Jewish life and hardly anything about my own roots, but the journey that I was to begin has since defined my identity. That feeling of belonging and being part of a bigger family is exactly why I became involved with the museum and why I became its Chair. I dreamed of helping others find their own Jewish identity and saw a real opportunity to shape Beit Hatfutsot to become an international thought leadership center on Jewish Peoplehood. I also saw a real opportunity to showcase the amazing story of the Jewish People. Our history is not just one of persecution. We have so much to celebrate – Jews have contributed meaningfully to society in every walk of life. What makes our institution unique is that it is not a history museum. Our story is still evolving, still being written and we are dedicated to ensuring we continue to tell our amazing, never-ending story.

Q. You have dedicated the past few years to revitalizing the institution. What is your mission for the museum?

A. I am lucky to work with a wonderful team, who are committed, creative and inspirational. Our mission is a shared one: to restore Beit Hatfutsot, which opened its doors in 1978 and was cutting edge for its time, back to its heyday. Beit Hatfutsot told the story of the Jewish People up until up until 1948. We are continuing to tell our story into the 21st Century, to present day. We also saw the opportunity to go beyond a bricks and mortars institution to elevate Beit Hatfutsot to become an institution dedicated to Jewish continuity and thought leadership.

A Pew Research Center Survey in March 2016 not only highlighted the stark diversities amongst Jews living in Israel, but demonstrated the critical need for a shared center for all corners of the Jewish world to meet, engage, explore, build and rebuild connections across the Jewish people. Grappling with Jewish identity has become an increasingly difficult task for younger generations, even in the Jewish State. Unlike previous generations, when asked who they are, the phrase “I’m Jewish” isn’t the automatic response. My mission is to ensure that the Museum of the Jewish People at Beit Hatfutsot tells the entire story of our people, speaks to each and every person that walks through its doors and engages Jews of any age, background or lifestyle.

Beyond the Museum in Tel Aviv, we have an invaluable role to play in reaching and engaging Jews around the world. Through our online databases and the International School of Jewish Peoplehood Studies we have developed interactive online programs and educational content that allow people to find their own specific Jewish identity.

That is very powerful for me personally. I am proud to stand at the helm of an organization that speaks to every Jew and is entirely pluralistic in its approach. This is a reflection of my own beliefs. My work is a personal, emotional expression of my own Jewish life and experiences and it has guided my vision of Jewish Peoplehood; a vision about which I care passionately.

Q How have you worked to achieve this mission?

A As Chair of the Museum’s Board of Directors I have devoted all my time and energy into the Museum’s renewal process. I am involved in every step of the process, from determining our new concept, setting and implementing our strategy, to building up our team, overseeing the operation of digitalizing the Museum’s huge archive of materials and spearheading our fundraising efforts.

I spend a great deal of time building relationships with thought leaders and other institutions committed to Jewish Peoplehood and have developed meaningful partnerships with Jewish organizations and communities.

I also devote my time, energy and resources into building partnerships with philanthropists, foundations and private donors who, like me, are devoted to Jewish continuity and believe in pluralism and diversity. They are excited by what we are doing, acutely understand our added value and want to be part of this journey. They believe in our central premise; that we are all part of the story.

Q Why is the museum being redesigned and how will the Museum of the Jewish People differ from the iconic Beit Hatfutsot?

A The Jewish world has changed dramatically since the museum’s opening in 1978. At that time, Israel was seen as a center of Jewish life. It was believed that Diaspora Jewry would decline and most Jews would eventually live in Israel. Almost 40 years later, Jewish communities outside of Israel not only make up more than half of the Jewish world, but at times define its core issues. They are vibrant and vital shaping many of the new realities which are so needed for a true understanding of the Jewish people. It is important for communities outside of Israel to receive more recognition in Israel and for Israelis to have a more nuanced understanding of the Jewish world outside of Israel.

Beit Hatfutsot has always told the story of our past but we want to also celebrate our present and promising future. The Museum of the Jewish People showcases our amazing, ongoing Jewish story, past, present and future. It will focus on inclusiveness and pluralism – speaking to Jews of all denominations and lifestyles. We are telling our story from every possible Jewish perspective. We do not question who is a Jew, but celebrate all streams of Judaism, and all over the world. Every Jew should feel that Beit Hatfutsot is a place relevant for Jewish communities around the world today and a place for all Jews to feel connected and proud to be Jewish. This is reflected in the New Wing that opened last May. When Phase II of our renewal is complete in 2019 and the entire museum is open, it will showcase our people’s commonalities but also our diversity. Rather than solely preserving the memories of the Diaspora for Israelis to view, we are creating a platform that celebrates our similarities, rather than our differences.

Q What does the museum showcase in the new wing?

A The Museum’s new wing opened in May and includes two permanent exhibits and two temporary exhibits:

The Alfred H. Moses and Family Synagogue Hall, an iconic feature of the old museum, focuses on the evolution of the synagogue as an institution from ancient times until the present. The 18 synagogue replicas that are at the heart of the exhibit, are accompanied by a ceremonial object donated from each synagogue. Using cutting edge technology, visitors can travel across time, explore and zoom in on anything that peaks their interest.

Heroes: Trailblazers of the Jewish People has come to life through the generosity of Milton Maltz. The permanent exhibit is a cutting edge interactive and playful experience which connects children to different types of Jewish heroes throughout our history including scientists, intellectuals, leaders, revolutionaries, cultural figures, athletes and more – men and women with unique talents. My own children love this part of the museum which is probably one of the best places to take children in Tel Aviv today. They were frequent visitors during the long summer holiday.

The temporary exhibit Operation Moses: 30 Years After is the museum’s lens on the immigration and absorption experiences of the Ethiopian-Israeli community. The exhibit, created and curated by members of this community, tracks the past thirty years in their lives since they were airlifted to Israel on the epic Mossad-led Operation Moses and includes their Integration – both positive and negative – into Israeli society.

Lastly, the new wing includes a temporary exhibit entitled “Forever Young: Bob Dylan at 75,” which celebrates the life and impact of Bob Dylan who more than any other Jewish musician has influenced 20th Century culture.

There is a real buzz around the New Wing. Since it was opened, by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in May, 48,000 visitors have come through its doors. We have received wonderful reviews on Trip Advisor and on our social media channels and we are now firmly on people’s radar. More and more missions and Birthright groups are including us in their Israel itineraries. I hope that Jewish Voice readers and their families will visit the Museum on their next trip to Israel. I can promise you will have a wonderfully enriching experience.

Q How much will the entire renewal cost?

A The entire renovation will cost approximately $100 million. The Israeli government is an important partner and has provided us with a $20 million matching grant. We have raised another $40 million in addition, thus far and are actively working with generous partners and friends to meet our target.

A lot of our capital funding has come from the American Jewish Community. American Jews really embody the concept of pluralism and celebrate diversity. In America there is a space for every denomination to matter and to flourish. That is why the Museum has been so successful in helping us to build partnerships with American Jews who are committed to the same vision.

We have just held our Annual Gala at the end of September in New York, which paid tribute to the life and legacy of Leon Charney, and which also honored his widow Tzili for her outstanding contribution to our global Jewish family. We were delighted that Chairman and Editor-in-Chief of Forbes Media, Steve Forbes and former NY Consul General, Ambassador Ido Aharoni generously agreed to be our Tribute Dinner Chairman and our Honorary Chairman, respectively. At the event we were also honored to hear from members of our Board of Governors – our Honorary Chair Senator Joseph Lieberman, Israeli Major-General Eitan Ben-Eliahu and Steve Greenberg MC; as well as to host the journalist and CNN news anchor Wolf Blitzer and the Consul General of Israel in New York Dani Dayan.

Q How does a center in Tel Aviv serve to connect Jewish people across the world?

A The Museum of the Jewish People is the only place in the world that tells the complete story of the Jewish People. It’s a leading Jewish institution in Israel but it’s by no means an Israeli institution. Its programs are now used all over the world, its partners comprise the leading Jewish organizations. More importantly, our efforts go well beyond a physical space. We are developing a virtual space, a “go-to place” for Jewish Peoplehood, identity and continuity which is digital and addresses todays globalized reality. A place relevant for a connected young generation. Our online platforms give full access to our archives and databases and includes a treasure trove of pictures, family trees, music, stories of communities etc. Our online efforts already allow users to explore their unique Jewish story but our digital strategy will lay a 21st century foundation allowing us to fully engage those who do not physically walk through our doors.

Q Finally, what else can you add about Irina Nevzlin?

A I did not grow up surrounded by luxury. I was born to a Middle class well-educated family. My parents were both engineers. I was encouraged to achieve and to take risks and this is something I am instilling in my children. I feel privileged to be able to help and to focus on Jewish Peoplehood, Jewish Identity and Jewish belonging. Every day I wake up and think about how I can make a difference. I hope I will always be able to.