Philadelphia’s National Museum of American Jewish History (NMAJH), which opened its doors in 2010, announced recently that it is filing for bankruptcy. An expansion of an earlier and more modest museum, founded in 1976, the institution later relocated to a grand building overlooking the Liberty Bell—which came with a price tag of $150 million. To Jonathan Tobin, not only were the troubles of NMAJH foreseeable, but they offer a telling lesson in the misallocated priorities of the American Jewish community:
No rational plan for the future of Jewish life in [Philadelphia]—or anywhere else, for that matter—would have prioritized putting up a massive building and assembling a huge collection of Jewish artifacts while, among other things, quality Jewish education was too expensive for many middle-class families to afford and local Jewish institutions still struggled to survive.
But the leaders of the NMAJH were besotted by the idea that a larger museum would become a centerpiece of Jewish life. In doing so, they were able to play on the fact that charitable donors are naturally attracted to putting up new buildings on which their names will be prominently placed, rather than to the far less glamorous and ego-satisfying task of maintaining existing and far more essential institutions.
The result is an attractive and interesting museum, albeit one whose basic flaw is a self-satisfied vision of American Jewish achievements that focuses mainly on [American Jews’] ability to fit in, as opposed to what makes their religious and ethnic identity worth preserving. . . . The complacent pride in the past and insufficient concern for the future that is the guiding spirit of the museum makes it the perfect metaphor for everything that is wrong with 21st-century American Jewry.
Museums are nice things to have, but they are not as important as schools, summer camps, college programs, Hebrew classes, and synagogues—let alone providing the social services Jewish communities must also finance. While not all money is fungible, the idea that a museum, even a good one, was the right way to spend $150 million on a Jewish communal cause isn’t so much unwise as it was sheer madness.