Walk down Main Street and you'll find an international corner market teeming with ethnic delights. Ring the doorbell on the house next door and you'll find yourself invited into a cozy Jewish home -- family pictures and menorah on the shelves; Shabbat candles and a tzedakah box atop the dresser. Further down the block is Bubbe's Bookstore, filled with children's books and a puppet theater. For spiritual nourishment, there's the synagogue down the block. And if you're hungry for nourishment of a more literal kind, across the street stands the Blue Bagel Cafe, where you can chow down some lunch -- falafel, pizza, even some sushi. Or, hey, take it to go and picnic underneath the giant oak tree down the street.
What's incredible about this Jewish-themed boulevard is that it is not located in the Fairfax District or the Pico-Robertson area, but indoors at the Zimmer Children's Museum of Jewish Community Centers of Greater Los Angeles. And it's all pretend, built to scale for your kids.
The detail is meticulous. For example, inside the Blue Bagel, a restaurant atmosphere is simulated down to the autographed pictures lining the white wall (in this case, children's entertainers Craig Taubman, the Alef Bet puppets, etc.).
Since the museum (formerly My Jewish Discovery Place Children's Museum) opened nearly a decade ago, both museum executive director Esther Netter and director Sherri Kadovitz have been instrumental in shaping its vision. Over time, it has switched venues and steadily expanded to suit community demand, from 600 square feet to 2,300 square feet to its current two-tiered 10,000-square-foot area inside The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles' 6505 Wilshire headquarters. The museum's latest and greatest incarnation was made possible by a $2 million grant from the Max and Pauline Zimmer Family Foundation, as well as support from other donors.
Child-friendly environments aside, the museum has also housed wonderful memories over the years. Kadovitz literally cried on the phone as she recalled, "I've had a wonderful opportunity in the [past] 10 years to meet a lot of people and to be exposed to new people, and that has totally filled my life. That's really special to me. It's really changed in scope. Apart from the size, I've been given such a creative license to bring exhibits to life, to make people aware of Ethiopian culture, Yiddish culture."
As Netter showed a visitor around the museum, she was excited about the new facilities. At the Mann Theater, with a variety of costumes and backdrops, a child can play superhero or pretend to be an immigrant passing through Ellis Island or a cruise passenger aboard Noah's Ark. And then there is the Giant Tzedakah Pinball. It took four people to build this behemoth -- a Pachinko-style contraption, adorned with colorful zig-zags of neon, that is so large it scales both floors. The three puck-like discs that trickle down the pinball machine's obstacle course bear the face of a coin, a timepiece and a mirrored surface -- symbolizing the three ways one can give back to the community: contributing money, time and yourself. Discs fall into categories slugged "clothing the homeless" and "saving the environment."
The idea, Netter said, is to underscore that "being part of a community comes with the responsibility of taking care of each other."
The Journal recently reported on the museum's YouTHink program, co-sponsored by the Center for American Studies and Culture. Netter is very proud of this program, and at the student art space -- which changes quarterly -- artwork examines some themes YouTHink tackles: drug abuse, divorce, racial tolerance.Netter said she views the museum as "a magical way to teach children and families Jewish values. The way it's grown has been perfect. We started out small and mastered that level. Now we're ready to grow."
That growth means that there is no time for Netter and the museum's board of directors to rest on their laurels. They are currently working on fundraising strategies to maintain the museum and keep its components fresh and innovative. Part of the plan is to keep the museum organic and improve the exhibits based on community feedback. One upcoming exhibit that has The Jewish Journal giddy is a section of Main Street, due in April, that will recreate our offices and allow children to simulate putting out a community newspaper. Computers will allow children to print up their own front-page headlines and contribute ideas to The Journal.
Jean Friedman, a founding chairperson, believes the museum will benefit people outside the community as much as those within it.
"We are an outreach to the non-Jewish community to demystify what a Jew is," said Friedman, who found it important to make the museum accessible and relevant on different levels.
"I was very interested in connecting every exhibit that we had with a value and a meaning, not just entertaining but educational, with content of lasting value," Friedman said.
As for Kadovitz, she is looking forward to watching the museum flourish. "Just to see the joy on the kids' faces when they come through -- that to me is one of the most special parts of this museum," she said.
The new Zimmer Children's Museum is already off to a great start. School-group visits have been booked through the summer, and birthday parties are already scheduled for next year. On Sun., Feb. 4, the museum will throw a community-wide opening free to the public, and in the weeks to come will host a diversity of Jewish-themed, family-oriented programs and workshops. Sure, the opening will show off the brand-new facilities, but for Netter and staff, there's another dimension to the festivities -- a feeling that the museum, after several venue changes, has finally arrived.
"We're home," Netter said softly. "We're finally home."
The Zimmer Children's Museum of Jewish Community Centers of Greater Los Angeles will hold its grand opening on Sun., Feb. 4, from 12-5 p.m. For more information on the opening, contact Sherri Kadovitz at (323) 761-8991; for general information such as directions and museum hours, call (323) 761-8989.