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Jewish Journal

A Museum’s Fate

Competing visions have the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust at odds with The Jewish Federation.

by Mike Levy

May 23, 2002 | 8:00 pm

The rent is paid through December. After that, no one knows where -- or if -- the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust will have a home.

Competition seems to be squeezing out the venerable museum. Not competition from the Simon Wiesenthal Center's Museum of Tolerance, but competing visions for the future between the museum's directors and its parent, The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles.

The museum's struggles with The Federation in many ways mirror the ongoing, sometimes contentious discussions between The Federation and the Jewish Community Centers of Greater Los Angeles (JCCGLA), another beneficiary agency of The Federation. Issues of falling membership and control seem to be at the heart of both debates.

Currently, the museum shares space at 6006 Wilshire Blvd. with office and storage space for the Jewish Community Library of Los Angeles (JCLLA). But JCLLA will be moving those functions into Federation headquarters at 6505 Wilshire Blvd., leaving the Museum of the Holocaust to pay the full rent with reduced funding.

Two years ago, The Federation provided more than $180,000 for the museum. This year, the allocation was $60,000, according to Dr. Gary Schiller, the museum's board chairman. Federation President John Fishel says that Federation support for the museum is actually higher than allocated funds would suggest, as The Federation underwrites budgeted expenditures not covered by the museum's fundraising. Schiller estimates the operating costs, including rent, programming and salary and benefits, to be $200,000 a year. "We run lean," he says.

"The issue for them is how does one offer Holocaust education and Holocaust memorialization in a place that's as vast as L.A.?" Fishel says. "Regrettably, the number of people visiting the museum on Wilshire Boulevard is not dramatic. The cost of maintaining this museum requires a real decision on where the money is spent. It's very important that Holocaust education continue to be a priority."

The Federation has suggested a plan that would allow the museum to spend more of its limited budget on programming rather than rent. It would like to see the museum move from its pricey rented Wilshire location to space in The Federation-owned Milken JCC in West Hills.

"They've done their own fundraising in a very minimal way, which to date has not been sufficient," Fishel says. "If [the museum] can even raise the money, is it best used to pay rent? I look at [moving] as an opportunity."

Museum officials, however, believe their outreach programs -- both for survivors and schoolchildren from throughout the city -- are best served at their current location. Though Federation officials suggest that competition with the nearby Museum of Tolerance hurts the Museum of the Holocaust, the comparison rankles museum officials.

Schiller says, "We are not constrained by some political objective, ours is merely a historical museum. We're not in a position to teach about Armenia or Rwanda. We have a discrete niche, while [the Museum of Tolerance's] mandate from the state is to teach tolerance."

The museum's supporters are not anxious to move from the Museum Row location, says Schiller. "We can't imagine a more accessible place" and will not have the same outreach ability housed in a "hallway in the Milken Center."

Michael Hirschfeld of the Jewish Community Relations Committee, the liaison between the museum and The Federation, was asked by The Federation not to speak to The Journal about this matter.

Rather than squabble about the location, museum officials are focused on increasing their fundraising efforts. Regardless of where the museum sits, major community support will be necessary to maintain the museum for the more than 6,000 student visitors a year, as well as such successful projects as the annual Yom HaShoah commemoration and the Shalmoni Holocaust Arts and Writing Competition.

To keep it all going, the museum's board is applying to foundations and funding agencies. Museum Director Rachel Jagoda says, "I'd love to see us raise a million dollars. We need it," and adds that donors have come up with approximately $10,000 in the last three weeks.

Jagoda just wants to see the museum stay alive. "This isn't a story about two Jewish organizations fighting with each other," she says. "This is about getting what this museum needs. We have this precious museum that's going to rot if the community doesn't support it."

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