A world-class museum on your doorstep

Each morning I drop my children off at Herzlia. While I settle my young daughter in for the day, I chat to an array of other parents doing the same.

Inevitably the conversation moves to what I do for a living. When I say that I work at the South African Jewish Museum (SAJM) the most common response is, “Really? I am so embarrassed, I keep meaning to visit, but never get around to it.” I am always dumbfounded by this response.

As a community, we are incredibly fortunate to have amazing organisations and institutions. We have a rich cultural life; superb educational opportunities; incredible welfare; and truly dedicated people who commit their time and energy for the benefit of not only our community, but society as well. The tragedy is that so many people in our community do not engage with what is available to them.

So, I am using this space to make the case for supporting our/your museum.

Did you know that the SAJM has received a Traveller’s Choice award from Trip Advisor? That we are ranked in the top 20 museums in Africa? That we offer a fully-subsidised education outreach to disadvantaged schools? That we host one of the finest private collections of Netsuke* in the world? That we regularly offer events and talks at no cost? I thought not.

Stop for a minute and think about it. A small, privately-funded, identity museum is ranked amongst the top 20 museums on the continent! That it details your own history and is based in your own city. This is truly amazing. That this museum is so highly rated is testament to the vision of its founder, the late Mendel Kaplan and the ongoing support of the Kaplan-Kushlick Foundation and Cape Gate. The museum receives no other funding whatsoever.

Embracing change

Modern museums have come a long way from their predecessors. They are no longer the dark and dusty repositories of artefacts from the past. Today museums have to offer ‘edutainment’ — content designed to educate and entertain. The manner in which people interact with information (and each other) has changed and for museums to remain relevant they have to embrace this change. Thus, the SAJM has embarked on a rejuvenation programme to upgrade our exhibits.

This is a long-term project that began last year. We already have two new installations: A brass model of the Old City of Jerusalem has been installed at the base of the spiral staircase — just as Jerusalem is the spiritual centre of Judaism, it is now also the physical centre of the SAJM.

As part of our rejuvenation project, we designed and installed a unique touch screen. This screen displays images, video and the biographies of notable South African Jews, each of whom has had a major impact in the fields of politics; the arts; sport; the sciences; law; business and public service. By providing a digital platform to display this information, it allows us to induct significantly more notable SA Jews into the museum’s pantheon.

So my first call to action in this article is to encourage you to go to the SAJM Facebook page, ‘like’ us and then offer a motivation for persons you feel should be inducted into the museum. (And while you are on our Facebook page, ‘like’ those nominations already listed if you agree with the motivation).

Archives and outreach

Call to action number two: The museum is hard at work developing an archival website. The Jewish Digital Archive Project (JDAP) will provide a window into the by- gone eras of Jewish life in South Africa. For instance, did you know that there used to be a Jewish presence in over 1000 towns in South Africa? We are digitally recording testimonies and memories, old photographs and films, family histories and documents. All of this will eventually be available online and website users will be able to upload their own family’s story for posterity. This is a mammoth task, with little budget. We need volunteers to sort through archives, source and digitise material, and to donate material (old photos, films, documents — which will be returned) of their family’s history. To get involved please contact the museum and ask for the JDAP team.

Finally, I would like to share, what is to my mind, the most important initiative undertaken by the SAJM. At the beginning of this article I alluded to the many members of our community who have not visited the museum. We’d love you to come and visit, but the reality is that the museum is not only here for you! The 15,000 Jews in Cape Town are not a large enough population to sustain a museum, and like most people, we tend only to go to museums when on holiday abroad, but not in our own city. The SAJM is an interlocutor between the Jewish community and wider South African society. We aim to teach people about the Jewish contribution to South Africa, to teach other communities about our religion, culture and heritage, and to counter-act the negative stereotypes of Jews that play out in the media and elsewhere. To this end we run an incredible education outreach programme.

The outreach programme is endorsed by the Department of Education and brings learners from disadvantaged schools to the SAJM. In many cases this will be the only interaction these learners will have with Jews in their lifetime. We provide transport, materials, trained facilitators and a kosher meal to each learner free of charge. On the programme the learners deal with issues of prejudice, xenophobia, racism, and the common values inherent in all religions in an interactive and ‘edutainment’ manner.

My final call to action is for support of this programme. We need individuals and organisations to sponsor school trips. We are breaking down barriers, educating children and hopefully helping build a better, more inclusive, tolerant South Africa. It is real, uplifting and fulfilling work.

The SAJM continues to grow from strength to strength, but we rely on your support. You have a world class facility on your doorstep — embrace it! I hope to see you in the museum soon.

*Netsuke — miniature Japanese sculpture from the 17th & 18th century.