Europe’s Biggest and Maybe Best Jewish Museum Opens in Moscow!

For those of you that have read my blog for the past two years, you have followed my journey to see how Jewish life has been revitalized in Russia in recent years. This month that revitalization took another huge leap forward with the opening of Europe’s largest Jewish Museum, The Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center.

The Museum is located in a converted bus garage and is 8,500 square meters (that’s over 91,000 square feet). In my mind, one of the significant differences between this Museum and other Jewish museums throughout Europe is that the Holocaust is not the main focus or end of the story, but just a part of the Jewish story in Europe, and more specifically Russia. The Museum is truly an interactive experience. There are some pieces of artifacts and pieces of Judaica to look at, but the focus is on interacting with history and every step of the way the Museum allows you to be a participant not a bystander.

The Museum experience starts in a 4D theater where there is a film that begins at creation and continues through the Jewish diaspora. The seats move as the story is told. In addition, similar to theaters at Disney World, there is mist and jets of air to create special effects. During the recreation of one of the ten plagues, air was blown behind our ankles to simulate flies. I was so surprised I let out a loud shriek. Some of the scenes were a little too graphic, including the image of Abraham about to sacrifice Isaac; and the blood for one of the plagues looked like it was out of a horror movie.

After the movie, we entered the main museum exhibition space. The first exhibit allowed you to see where Jews live and interesting facts about the communtites. The whole display was interactive. You clicked on a country on the map and learned details about the community. It was fun to look up places we have visited this year including Georgia, and then learn about even more distant communities in China and India. Next there was an interactive screen where you could drag phrases together to create famous Yiddish proverbs. Michael read them in a funny Yiddish voice, which was quite amusing.

The next few sections of the museum focused on Jewish life in the 1700’s – early 1900’s in the Pale of Settlement (modern day Ukraine, Poland, Belarus, and Lithuania). It started out talking about life in the shtetls and then about migration to bigger cities including Odessa. In the section about shtetls you could walk through a market, listen to traditional music, and — my favorite — “dress up” in the outfits of shtetl-residents. The technology was really cool: a camera took a picture of your face and then you could choose a profession and you would appear in a “mirror” dressed up in clothes for that profession. I was slightly offended that the only outfit for a woman was a seller in the market. I will take it that was the only option for women at the time. As a form of protest, I dressed up as a male matchmaker. Michael chose to be a rabbi. We then sat in an Odessa cafe and learned about pogroms and other challenges facing Jews in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. Screens on the cafe table contained information about situations confronting Jews from that time period and then you could decide how you would react. For example, if your store was destroyed by a pogrom, what would you do? Move to America, rebuild your store, join a Jewish Defense League, or “I am still in shock I don’t know what I would do”? After you voted, you could see how other visitors at the Museum also voted.

The next section was about the fall of the Tsar and the rise of Communism, focusing on the role of Jews who were prominent in the early Communist movement. The museum than had a large section on World War II, where it showed tanks and airplanes invented by Jews, including women, that were used in the war effort and of course a lot of information about mass killings on Soviet territory and other atrocities of the Holocaust. The Remembrance section allowed you to light a memorial candle, which was something I have never seen before. In addition, you could look up family members who were killed in the War.

The following sections showed how Judaism was suppressed in the Soviet Union and discussed the worldwide movement to allow Soviet Jews to emigrate. The last sections focused on the current rebirth that Judaism has experienced over the last 20 years and showed pictures of Jewish celebrations throughout the FSU.

We ended our visit with a stop in the cafe for a bagel and coffee. The bagel has a long way to go before it is on par with any bagel in New York.

As a professional fundraiser, I am always curious about a museum’s list of patrons. In the States, the largest patrons are usually wealthy individuals and private foundations. At this museum, the patron who was front and center was Vladimir Putin. Yes, he donated a month’s salary to the museum, but in terms of financial contribution that is not very significant (the museum is estimated to have cost around $50 million). As we were looking at the list a Russian woman came over and made the same comment. The other big sponsors were all companies, mostly oil and gas companies that have close relationships with the government. There were almost no private donors and only one non-Russian donor. The concept of philanthropy that we have in America has not quite reached Russia.

Overall, I can honestly say that the Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center is probably the best Jewish museum I have ever visited. The interactive experience really allowed you to be a part of history and get involved. And whatever shortcoming may exist in Russian philanthropy, it is so amazing that a museum like this can open in the center of Moscow with such strong support from the government.

From Russia with Love,

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2 Responses to Europe’s Biggest and Maybe Best Jewish Museum Opens in Moscow!

  1. Jessica says:

    Heather – this is awesome! Thanks so much for sharing this! I’m always a bit skeptical about Jewish Museums and what’s behind their creation. And I don’t know when I’ll get to this one so really appreciate your sharing and your perspectives. Keep writing!

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