Idea for Museum of Jewish Ideas born here

Idea for Museum of Jewish Ideas born here

Artist renderings for the Museum of Jewish Ideas, the proposal for which was conceived in Pittsburgh.
Artist renderings for the Museum of Jewish Ideas, the proposal for which was conceived in Pittsburgh.

Don’t expect to see antique seder plates or recovered Torah scrolls at the Museum of Jewish Ideas (MoJI). Don’t expect to view burnished jugs from the time of David, or to tour exhibits devoted to the Inquisition and the Holocaust.

In fact, at MoJI, don’t expect to have a traditional Jewish museum experience at all, because, to put it simply, MoJI will be like no other museum in the world.

Conceived and developed by Rabbi Danny Schiff, former community scholar at the Agency for Jewish Learning and former spiritual leader of Temple B’nai Israel in White Oak, MoJI will be a portable museum devoted solely to Jewish ideas.

Through interactive, multimedia displays, MoJI will convey how precepts originating as uniquely Jewish have shaped, and continue to shape, the whole of Western civilization.

Schiff, who moved from Pittsburgh to Jerusalem in 2009, is an adult education specialist, and has taught more than 1,000 graduates in the Hebrew University’s Melton Adult Mini School. He has lectured widely on the significance of Judaism to human civilization, and his concept for the museum was generated from his years of teaching.

“The idea was born here in Pittsburgh because it seemed to be very important that Jews started to think more centrally about what Jews have done in the world beyond the synagogue,” said Schiff, who was in town last week to meet with MoJI’s Pittsburgh-based board of directors.

Soon after Schiff made aliya, he began working on his Master’s of Arts degree in museum studies online through Johns Hopkins University while “simultaneously putting the groundwork in place conceptualizing this new museum,” he said. He completed his degree last May.

The museum, Schiff said, will be an extension of the educational work that he began here.

“I very much see this as a continuation of the work I was doing in adult education in Pittsburgh,” he said. “Just as I attempted to convey the significance of Judaism in the classroom, now I am trying to convey the significance of Judaism from a 21st century technological platform that can have a global reach.”

The museum’s board has been working with a team of professional designers and architects in Israel, including Haim Dotan, who was chosen by the Israeli Foreign Ministry as the developer, contractor, designer and architect of the Israel Pavilion in EXPO 2010 in Shanghai.

“We began to imagine what a museum of ideas would look like,” Schiff said. “And the more we thought about the nature of Jewish ideas in the 21st century, the more we realized we needed a structure that was flexible, adaptable and one that wouldn’t be heavily invested in bricks and mortar.”

The concept of a portable museum came to mind as evocative of a time in history when Jews carried their ideas through the desert in a movable structure, he said.

“We realized that when you think about Jewish history, we were the first people to receive a set of ideas and then put them in a mobile container that we could move around for 40 years, constructing it and taking it down every step of the way,” he said. “So, we decided that the Museum of Jewish Ideas should be housed in a portable building that could be set up and taken down and moved from city to city.”

The plans call for the fabrication of two separate museums: one that will travel through North America, and one that will be shipped throughout Israel. The museums will be contained in buildings that will look and feel like permanent structures, but that can be assembled and disassembled easily, moved to the next location, and re-created on site.

“It’s so unique in its mobile nature and its virtual reality,” said Arnie Gefsky, chair of MoJI’s board. “I’ve never seen anything like this. It’s going to be a phenomenal attraction. I’m just knocked out by the whole thing.”

Portability is not the only thing that will make MoJI distinct from other Jewish museums.

“Unlike many other museums, it won’t be centered on objects,” Schiff said. “Rather, it will be based on cutting edge technology that will explore the transformative ideas that Judaism has given to human civilization.”

For example, Schiff said, the way Judaism approached the poor and downtrodden was a radical departure from how the ancient world dealt with those who were less fortunate.

“The museum will show how concrete Jewish concepts like tzedaka became revolutionary and changed the way in which real lives were lived and experienced, and dramatically affected the way in which civilization addresses the population of the needy,” he said.

The museum, which will be geared to adults and teens over the age of 15, will consist of five exhibit zones maximizing educational impact: art, cinema, a touch screen wall, an interactive table and dialogue. Jewish history will be referenced in a way that focuses on its influence on society at large.

“There is nothing else like this in the world in terms of subject matter or mode of presentation,” said Schiff, who has been studying museums around the globe in conjunction with this project.

“There are museums of religion out there,” he said, “but I am most focused on trying to communicate why Judaism is not well classified as a religion. Many of the ideas that will be depicted in the museum are not religious per se. Judaism is better understood as an engine of ideas.”

Schiff and his board have passed the initial phase of design and educational planning, and are heading into the next stage of development.

“We are anticipating that, provided we are successful in garnering the appropriate resources, that we will be up and running in about three years,” he said.

While several cities already have expressed an interest in launching the museum, Pittsburgh could be the site of its opening.

“Certainly, because the idea was born in Pittsburgh, and most of the board resides in Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh would have high priority in seeing the museum early,” he said.

Gefsky, a former student of Schiff’s, sees MoJI as an extension of the rabbi’s mission to educate, but on a far larger scale.

“This is an expression of [Schiff’s], translated into a mass delivery system,” Gefsky said. “It’s particularly appealing to those of us that were his students and cherished his method and manner of delivery. I’m very excited about it.”

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(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at



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