Leadership Profile: Michelle Malet

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 Lilian 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 to inspire audiences to connect, reflect, and act—to connect across families and diverse communities and cultures; to reflect upon the relevance of history to today; and to act on behalf of their own individuals and communities. We’re building this new history and culture museum in downtown Washington to inspire civic engagement and spark cross-cultural conversation. I just can’t think of a better time to be doing this, in this country.  

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 took a deep breath, exhaled, and . . . 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—over the years, it was 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. It’s been a part of the story of Washington in so many ways. It has been historically restored, so when visitors come to the museum in fall 2022 (construction will finish in the spring, and then we will install exhibits for 6 months), they will visit the orientation gallery—which is IN the synagogue—and then they can explore the museum. We have a permanent collection on the 2nd floor, and a community action lab for teenagers (which the BFF helps fund), and then we have a temporary exhibition gallery. In Washington, we’ve never had a place for international Jewish exhibits to come, so I’m delighted that our first exhibit will be “The Notorious RBG”.  

The museum is 30,000 square feet, and the synagogue is part of the build. 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? 

Going back to when we were a Jewish Historical Society, the Foundation reached out to us. Back in 2009, we received a gift of support to catalog and preserve Leo Bernstein’s papers. So, in our permanent collection, we have the Leo Bernstein Archival Collection, which includes 23 archival boxes—correspondence, professional/community relations, memorabilia, biographical materials, genealogical information, scrapbooks . . . all documenting his life’s work.  

The Foundation was an early supporter, which was vital in helping other foundations realize our importance. This museum would not be 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 (Jewish Causes) provides program support, specifically for our Teen Council, which is an initiative we have created over the last couple of years as we planned the museum. So, what we’ve been doing with the annual grant support is engaging 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. And they’ve learned about the role of community, which is where my heart’s been. Lastly and most excitingly, on the fencing outside the museum, they will be building their own exhibit. They’ve learned public speaking skills, developed core friendships—especially during this pandemic time, when they were really isolated, I just 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? 

100% yes! We did what all the museums did—but it was challenging for us, because we weren’t an OPEN museum. We didn’t have years and years of content we could reshape and distribute. We’re creating content as we prepare for our opening. So, what we ended up doing was going online and using social media a lot. We really tried to bring our content online and make it accessible. 

As a fundraiser, 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, letting them know how much they mean to us. 

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. All this while building a museum from home! We’re a feisty, start-up mentality. As a development director, 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 have made this dream come true. 

Your career seems to center on “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 the connecting with the past lead to social change in the present and future?  

Our visitors will come through the museum and they will engage in different activities. They will 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 4th generation D.C. families—the community that has worked in this city to make change. The sky is the limit in terms of causes! 

When people come in, no matter where they’re from, they are able to learn about the process of making change and connect with it on some personal level, then go back 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 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 together! 

a@C0

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