The New Online Washington Jewish Museum Makes Room for Jewish History and Culture in an Increasingly Intolerant World

And it offers a purpose and mission that calls to us from history
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Rebecca "Becky" Benaroya, pictured here as a child with her family (first row, middle), is one of 20 honorees included in the virtual museum

Unlike a traditional brick-and-mortar museum—necessarily finite in space, and set up to focus on objects—an online repository is not only illimitable, but able to better present various other media: texts, audio files, images, film, both new and archival. Thus the initial virtual exhibit launched last month by the Washington Jewish Museum—the new digital exhibition space of the Washington State Jewish Historical Society—is not a completed work, but a beginning, designed to be added to, to enable expansion and depth. (It’s also, as has been noted, less vulnerable to hate-based vandalism than a physical space and its contents would be.)

This first exhibit, which coincides with the organization’s 50th anniversary, is titled Agents of Change: 20 Remarkable Jewish Women of Washington State. It highlights a marvelously eclectic group of women, including Portlandia’s Carrie Brownstein, everyone’s favorite librarian Nancy Pearl and WNBA All Star Sue Bird—a group that, according to WSJHS Executive Director Lisa Kranseler, have been underrepresented throughout the years in the society’s historical holdings: “We recognized this about two years ago when we started applying for grants to make this possible. This was before the #MeToo movement, and we were in the exact right place at the right time.”

I spoke with two of the 20 honorees about their inclusion (view the exhibit in full here).

“It means a great deal to me. And I was also moved when Mayor Durkan proclaimed May 20, 2018 Music of Remembrance Day. It’s definitely a milestone,” says Mina Miller, founder and artistic director of Music of Remembrance, whose organization is also celebrating an anniversary this year. It was 20 years ago that it mounted its first concert devoted to music by composers exiled by, or lost to, the Holocaust‚ from string quartets to cabaret songs and one-act operas—and has since commissioned about 30 musical works on the subject.

Not only that, as Miller says in a podcast for Agents of Change, “we’ve expanded our scope… looking at the impact of war and persecution on not only Jews, but people excluded because of their faith, ethnicity, gender, [and] sexuality,” including interned Japanese-Americans and, in the 2019–20 season, she says, refugees around the world.

“[Our] larger and unique impact, especially over the last decade,” she tells me, “has been through the commissioning of new works that tell essential stories and connect the Holocaust’s urgent lessons to today’s world. These works travel around the world, but we take great pride that they’re all launched here in Seattle.” This Sunday, 4 p.m. at Benaroya Recital Hall, MoR will mark this anniversary with a concert presenting a selection from the most notable works in the organization’s repertory, and including performances by the Northwest Boychoir and members of Spectrum Dance Theater.

KUOW journalist Marcie Sillman waxed eloquent, expanding further on the WSJHS’s educational mission: “I was honored and, frankly, surprised…The WSJHS has included women who truly have made changes, through advocacy and policy work. As a journalist I don’t think of myself as an agent of change. But given the current political and social climate in this country, I take pride in my profession and in my colleagues who persist in covering big stories despite the public skepticism and official derision.

“As an arts journalist, I don’t cover what some people see as the big stories of the day. But I’m more convinced than ever that our future depends on artists and cultural organizations who give us a chance to experience our shared humanity. It’s my honor and my passion to continue to bring their stories to our audience.”

Agents of Change isn’t the only special event the WSJHS has planned for its anniversary year. The society will host a national traveling panel exhibit from the National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia—Power of Protest: Soviet Jewry, opening at Hillel UW on March 12—an institution that, as it happens, just released a letter in response to Saturday’s massacre at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life Synagogue that also beautifully encapsulates the vital importance of the WSJHS and its exhibits: “We respond by rededicating ourselves to our educational mission, working to inspire people of all backgrounds to understand and appreciate the values of heritage and identity through active engagement with stories of American Jewish life that we tell in our Museum every day.”

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Her first installation, Edgar Arceneaux’s "Library of Black Lies," explores "how history is constructed—for and by whom—and the multiplicity of 'truth'”