Q&A: Sephardi Jews to get a proper museum, in Netanya

An artist’s rendering of the planned Sefarad Museum: Sefardi and Oriental Jewry Heritage Centre

The Sefarad Museum: Sefardi and Oriental Jewry Heritage Center, in Netanya, Israel, is scheduled to break ground in 2018, to coincide with Israel’s 70th anniversary. It promises to be the most significant museum of its kind, illuminating over 2,000 years of Sephardi and Oriental Jewry’s intellectual and cultural contributions to Judaism.

The 5,000-square-meter facility, set on four floors, has been spearheaded by the Netanya Academic College and the municipality of Netanya, with support from Israel’s Ministry of Culture and Sport, as well as Jewish donors from around the world.

Integrating traditional display techniques with interactive technologies, including virtual reality displays and interactive touch screens, the museum’s highlights will include a Ladino music centre, a state-of-the-art research library, a gallery on Christopher Columbus and Sephardi Jewish maritime achievements in the Middle Ages, exhibits on Maimonides and Judah Halevy, and a history of Spanish Jewry.

It’s slated to open in about three years.

The CJN recently interviewed Chanan Ziderman, the museum’s project manager, and project chair Neil Davis.

What will the Sephardic museum entail and why is it appearing now?

Davis: We feel the history of the Sephardi nation needs to be properly recorded and that there’s been an injustice in the world, in which we have allowed all sorts of information to go out about the Jewish nation, but somehow, the Sephardi side of the story hasn’t been properly told. I’m an out-and-out Ashkenazi, but I have the distinction of being married for nearly 50 years to a lady whose grandmother was Sephardi, and she can actually trace her roots – 1,000 names altogether – back to 1391, 101 years before the Jewish expulsion from Spain. What I want to be able to achieve is to stand up and salute what the Sephardi nation has done for the Jewish nation, because I think it’s been ignored, or it’s not correct. This is an injustice, which is going to be righted.

Why has the Sephardi story not been told? Has it been ignored?

Davis: I think it’s been unintentionally ignored. We’ve had the State of Israel for 70 years and there’s only so much you can do. Seventy years among a couple of thousand years is nothing – a slight raindrop in a big puddle. We had a state to create and that took precedence. But now is the time that the injustice is righted. We have the support of the government of Israel, starting with the president, who is very keen on the project. We are also very fortunate to have the minister of culture, Miri Regev, who is unbelievably keen on what we are trying to achieve.

What will go into the museum?

Ziderman: It’s a 5,000-square-meter building that will be presenting a different congregation, the countries they came to Israel from, the mark the Jews left behind and 2,000 years of Jewish history in various countries around the Mediterranean Sea, from Iraq to Libya. Our concept is a high-tech presentation with a lot of virtual reality and new technologies that will be telling the stories of Sephardic history. We’re also going to have a virtual reality synagogue. When you step in, you can choose which synagogue you want to enter. You can choose the service and whether you want to attend a wedding or a bar mitzvah in various Sephardi synagogues around the world.

What is the price tag?

Ziderman: The price is $30 million, which is cut into three: $15 million is the building cost, $5 million is estimated for the technology, presentation and the knowledge that will be put in the museum; and $10 million will be an endowment fund that will sponsor the research and upkeep.

Davis: I’m not a lover of the word “museum.” I think it should be called a centre, or something else. I always feel the word “museum” has a slightly sleepy connotation. But on the other hand, if you’re going to get government funding for maintenance and upkeep, then the word “museum” needs to appear.

Will there be education and outreach programs?

Davis: Oh, very much. This will be a living, breathing thing. Many years ago, I was taken by my parents to a museum, and halfway through, I was yawning. People will not be given the opportunity to yawn. This will be very much a hands-on museum, where there will be all sort of activities and interests.

I was fortunate to inherit something called the Columbus Exhibition. We are fervent believers, from all the research we have done through the Netanya Academic College, that Christopher Columbus was halachically Jewish. Why, when he wrote to his close mishpachah, did he write in the top right-hand corner, “B’H” (Baruch HaShem)? We believe that it’s rather nice for the Jewish world to be made aware of this particular fact, though much of the evidence is circumstantial.


I think what we want to do is to make sure people don’t go once in their lives to this sort of museum, but come back, because it will have all sorts of different activities. For example, the “Time Tunnel” will be a network of halls showcasing the centres of Hispano-Jewry in Spain, as well as the major Jewish communities from Persia, Syria, Turkey, Europe, Libya and Morocco. It will therefore represent what the Sephardim have done not just for the Jewish nation, but for all nations.

We’ll have school trips coming and soldiers visiting. We want to make it easier for people to learn about the Sephardim and their wonderful traditions, rather than just reading a book.

What about the modern era? There has been much discussion over the past few decades that the Sephardic experience during the Holocaust has not been adequately told. Will you be addressing that, and the expulsion of Jews from Arab lands in 1948?

Ziderman: We have three years to work on the content of the museum. We have Prof. Avi Gross, of the Institute for Sefardi and Anousim Studies at Netanya Academic College, as a consultant, and we will be very happy to mention this. He will be the academic manager of the museum.

Davis: The subject matter you raise is very sensitive at the present time and I think we have to be very careful not to expose too much media attention to this very important aspect. But certainly, it’s going to be very much borne in mind, in the same way I’ve been involved in the Anusim (people who were forced to convert from Judaism) for the last 30 years. We have an institute that studies and researches and also helps to bring Anusim back to Judaism. So we cover lots of territory.

This interview has been edited and condensed for style and clarity.