What we must rebuild before building a Jewish museum

POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw EVELYN TAUBEN PHOTO
POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw EVELYN TAUBEN PHOTO

With the Jewish Museum of Canada now on hold indefinitely, it is apparent that where a renovation is truly needed is in the systems of thinking and organizing in our community.

The laudable vision of philanthropists Isadore and Rosalie Sharp – to embed the museum in a larger cultural complex at University of Toronto together with part of the Jewish studies program, departments of History and Near and Middle Eastern civilizations, the Institute of Islamic Studies and a performance hall – will not be realized. While the museum is not entirely moribund, it will not be part of this visionary hub, but will join other discarded Canadian Jewish museum projects.


That such a significant partnership opportunity was left to fizzle suggests great indifference on the part of Canadian Jews toward our history and its place in the national narrative.

Leading museum professional Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett expressed her own disappointment to me. “There was an opportunity to create a first-class institution in an academic setting, next to Toronto’s flagship museum, the Royal Ontario Museum. Not just another Jewish museum, but rather an innovative institution that could break new ground in drawing on the experience of one of Canada’s many communities to reflect on a wide range of issues of increasing relevance in our world today.”

“What went wrong?” She asked her online network. The answer lies in ineffective Jewish communal structures and the diffuse nature of Canadian Jewish identity.

Having visited Jewish museums around the world – in Amsterdam, Warsaw, Athens, Paris, Los Angeles, New York – I find it disappointing, embarrassing even, that a Jewish museum cannot gain traction here. The CJN report on the abandoned plans revealed that the fundraising effort, shepherded by UJA Federation of Greater Toronto, did not meet targets along the university’s timeline.

Perhaps part of the reason why this initiative was not funded is that we don’t have a clear sense of the story we have to tell – and worse still, don’t believe strongly it is worth telling, to ourselves or to the wider public.

Many with influence and wealth, especially in the gravitational centre of the national community – Toronto – cultivate a Jewish identity reminiscent of the Enlightenment ideal: Jew at home, man on the street. Jewish philanthropists who are vital to bastions of culture such as the Art Gallery of Ontario, the ROM, the ballet, opera, symphony and so on, were evidently not equally inspired to foster a major institution of Jewish cultural import. What to make of this disparity? Does it reflect an innate insecurity or ambivalence about Jewish culture in the public sphere?

Even as a museum advocate, I find myself wondering: if resources are so sparingly distributed in our community to Jewish arts and culture, can we bear a cultural institution of the scope projected by the Sharps? Perhaps the focus must be instead on grassroots projects that are innately tied to community with more modest budgets such as the nomadic Museum of Jewish Montreal with its strong online presence and popular walking tours.

There is a further structural challenge in Canada, where leading Jewish philanthropists are tethered to the fossilized Jewish federation system, which, despite a respectable core mandate, never even pretends to place a premium on culture. Rather, volatile circumstances have repeatedly demonstrated that the federation with its conservative approaches and limited priorities makes for a strange bedfellow, if not a toxin, to cultural initiatives. Yet, it remains the system that donors trust.


The usual channels will not do for an undertaking as bold and big as a Jewish museum to succeed. We need new strategies, risk-takers, galvanizing leaders and experienced cultural professionals. We need to support the latter with real resources to build substantive, groundbreaking institutions. We need to cut loose from the federation system, letting it focus on what it does best rather than deputizing it as a catchall for every Jewish undertaking. We need to know our story as Canadian Jews and to value it as part of the great Canadian story.

Evelyn Tauben is a writer, producer and curator in Toronto.