What is your role at the Capital Jewish Museum?
I am the director of development at the new Capital Jewish Museum (also known as the Lillian and Albert Small Capital Jewish Museum). I have been in the position for three years now, and it is the BEST job I have ever had. I love it!
Tell me more about the museum. What are your visions/goals for it in the community?
The museum explores the past, present, and future of Jewish Washington in the nation’s capital, inspiring audiences to connect, reflect, and act: to connect across families, diverse communities, and cultures; to reflect upon the relevance of history to today; and to act on behalf of their own communities. We’re building this new history and culture museum in downtown Washington to inspire civic engagement and spark cross-cultural conversation. I can’t think of a better time in this country to be doing this work.
According to my research, the museum used to be housed in a historic synagogue. What will be happening there? Has the new site already launched, or is it still being built?
We have been under construction since December 2020—which was a remarkable decision to go to construction in the middle of a global pandemic! We were ready to go, so we didn’t delay, and it worked out to our benefit.
The original 1876 synagogue has a very storied history and has been a unique part of the D.C. landscape since its creation. In addition to a synagogue (where Ulysses Grant attended the dedication ceremony), it has been a grocery store, a bicycle shop, a soap store—even a barbecue with a neon pig hanging off the side! This synagogue has been preserved by our community and historically restored; visitors will enter through the orientation gallery—which is IN the synagogue—before exploring the museum. It’s just a beautiful blend of historical and modern construction; it’s really going to be something to behold.
What value has being part of the BFF ecosystem brought to you and the museum?
The Foundation was an early supporter, which was vital in helping other foundations realize our importance. This museum could not have been built without the incredible founding families of Washington who have really stepped up to make this dream a reality.
More specifically, the Bernstein Family Grant provides program support for our Teen Council, which is an initiative that engages high school students from the district and surrounding areas. Not all of them are Jewish, which is fascinating, but they are enthusiastic—about history, advocacy, and museums! It’s really a remarkable experience: they’ve gotten to go behind the scenes and see how a museum is being built. They’ve worked with our architects and met with humanities scholars, discussing how to design activities that would reach out to their peer audiences. They’re building their own exhibit on the fencing outside the museum. And they’ve learned about the role of community, which is where my heart’s been. They’ve learned public speaking skills, developed core friendships—especially during this pandemic time, when they were really isolated, I think this is transformational. They are ambassadors for the museum! The Bernstein Family Grant has made this all possible. We feel very fortunate to have partnered with the Foundation in this work.
Has Covid changed the way you work or view your role in society? If so, how?
The pandemic provided opportunities to foster partnerships, collaborate, and reach new audiences. This is a community museum, and we want community voices to be heard. We tried to bring our content online and make it accessible—all while building a museum from home! We have a feisty, start-up mentality.
As a development director, it was a rough period. We stopped the campaign for 6 months, and I went into stewardship mode, working on key relationships with our supporters—staying connected, making sure they were ok, and letting them know how much they mean to us. I’m so exceptionally proud: for the campaign target, we hit our original goal. It is a team of incredible lay leadership and community supporters that has made this dream come true.
Your career seems to center on this mission: “connect and learn about the past, reflect on how you can make a difference, and act to make the world a better place.” How can connecting with the past lead to social change in the present and future?
When people visit the museum, no matter where they’re from, they are able to physically learn about how to participate in our society—all the different ways the Jewish community and American democracy have impacted each other. It’s your story; it’s my story; it’s my children’s story; it’s the story of the 4th generation D.C. families: the community that has worked for so long in this city to make change. Our visitors get to connect with that story on some personal level, and then they can return to their communities and become a change agent.
We seem to be entering a new age of philanthropy and activism, based on the intersectionality and interconnectedness of previously separate interest categories. How can the museum be a leader in this environment?
We are going to be a convener. We are going to be a safe place. Museums are still public institutions that are trusted and respected. We are going to be a place where we can bring both sides together and have conversations about challenging topics.
What do you do in your spare time to balance your life? What replenishes/refuels/reenergizes you?
Philanthropy is my core; this is what I love doing! For fun, I love spending time with my kids, and getting out into nature; I love shabbat dinners; I’m on the board of Congregation Har Shalom—I like to give back that way.
What books have inspired or challenged you?
Books on gender equality. I was privileged to be part of the JWI leadership cohort, training women for executive positions. One of the books we read was What Works by Iris Bohnet, tackling unconscious bias in business that holds women back. It was really transformative in how I think about women in the workplace and the challenges we continue to face.
What is your mantra?
My mantra has always been “Seize the day!”
Before we end, I want to say that I am deeply grateful for the community support, the leadership, the board of directors, and all the people who have dreamed this museum into reality. We all at the museum feel blessed to do this work. Thank you to the Bernstein Family Foundation for being there with us for so many years. We look forward to celebrating our opening with you!