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Jewish Journal

Esther Netter: A One-Woman Dynamo

by Marc Ballon

June 3, 2004 | 8:00 pm

Esther Netter. Photo by Alberto Rodriguez

Esther Netter. Photo by Alberto Rodriguez

Time is running out for Esther Netter. On June 6, the Zimmer Children's Museum will unveil its most ambitious art exhibit in its 14-year history to an expected sellout crowd of 300. As if that wasn't enough, the Zimmer's executive director must simultaneously ready her organization for independence from the Jewish Community Centers of Greater Los Angeles (JCCGLA), an outfit that for years has provided important services to Zimmer at heavily discounted rates.

Seated in a conference room with two Zimmer executives, Netter gave a progress report on the last-minute preparations for "Show & Tel: Art of Connection," which will feature 179 telephones transformed into artworks by the likes of musician Alicia Keys, actress Elizabeth Taylor and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. The funky phones, up for auction, will benefit youTHink, an art-based social issues program for third- to-12th-graders (see sidebar below).

Turning her attention to Zimmer's impending independence, Netter whipped out a to-do list with 50 items on it. By July 1, she said, her staff of 12 full-time and 10 part-time employees must apply for a business license, set up a bank account and hire a chief financial officer, among other tasks.

During the meeting, Netter's cellphone rang over and over and over. Whenever it sounded, she flipped it open and glanced at the caller ID to decide whether to answer.

She occasionally seemed lost in her own thoughts, peering off into the distance. Adding to the chaos, a frantic Zimmer employee barged in and asked Netter for money to pay for some fixtures for the phone exhibition. Netter handed her a blank check -- literally.

"The classic Esther is to be in a meeting, and she has her phone ringing, her cell ringing and the call-waiting going," said Shifra Teitelbaum, youTHink's director. "She always has 40 things going. Undivided attention is not in her vocabulary."

Passionate and driven, the 45-year-old Netter has managed to channel her nervous energy into tangible accomplishments for the betterment of the local Jewish community. Working closely with founding board member Jean Friedman, Netter has overseen Zimmer's growth from a tiny 600-square-foot museum with a $40,000 budget to one of the city's premiere Jewish institutions with a $1.5 million budget.

The museum now sits in a 10,000-square-foot space inside The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles's headquarters at 6505 Wilshire Blvd. Netter set up the initial meetings with Nathan Krems and Zimmer family members that led to a $2 million grant that made the recent expansion possible.

Last year, Los Angeles Magazine selected Zimmer for a "Best of L.A." award for best little-known museum.

Netter is quick to give credit to others and to forge alliances to get things done. She said she prefers sharing the limelight with 10 other people than to have it shine brightly on her alone.

Known as much for her ability to spin out creative ideas as for her short attention span, Netter co-founded youTHink six years ago with her friend, Bernie Massey, executive director of the Center for American Studies and Culture. Concerned that students were increasingly interested in education as a means for making money rather than as a tool for social change, the pair came up with the concept of using art to stimulate critical thinking.

Going into classrooms with reproductions of provocative artworks, youTHink instructors draw students out into discussions about such contemporary subjects as affirmative action, homelessness and the value of education. Some students have become so inspired that they have gone on to volunteer for community service after the program, she said.

YouTHink, which serves about 20,000 California students annually, hopes to expand nationally. The program recently received a grant of nearly $100,000 for that purpose. All the while, Netter has helped raise hundreds of thousands of dollars from public and private sources to fund her pet project.

Her willingness to take Zimmer in a new direction, despite some board concern that youTHink might detract from the museum's mission to serve the Jewish community, reflected Netter's courage and vision, Massey said.

"She wanted to knock the walls down on what the limitations of the museum were at the time and broaden the institution," he said. "She recognized the importance of being connected to the broader community."

Netter wasn't always so worldly. For much of her life, she lived, loved and played mainly among Jews. She even married a religious leader, Rabbi Perry Netter, with whom she had three children -- Eli, 19; Mosher, 17; and Shira, 13. The couple eventually divorced.

Growing up in a Conservative Jewish family in the San Fernando Valley, Netter's happiest childhood memories took place at Camp Ramah. There, she learned about her heritage by pretending to be a Soviet Jew trying to emigrate or play-acting the creation of Israel.

At UCLA, she earned a bachelor's degree in Jewish studies. She went on to graduate with a master's from the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. In 1981, Netter landed a job at JCCGLA working in teen outreach at public schools. She has worked in the community ever since.

Over the years, Netter's work increasingly exposed her to people of different backgrounds, especially through youTHink. Now, she sees the world in all its colors and flavors.

"I want play a role in strengthening the Jewish community and in connecting our communities around us individually, institutionally and communally," she said.

One of the ways she now bridges those two worlds is through "Show & Tel," which is the Zimmer's first adult show. The exhibition will feature art from both Jews and non-Jews and raise money for the youTHink program, which serves mostly non-Jewish students.

At the Zimmer's November annual fundraising dinner, an audience member paid $12,000 for the right to first dibs on one of the phones; another ponied up $10,000 for the second choice.

Netter said she is happy and fulfilled with her work, family and contribution to both the Jewish and larger L.A. community.

"My life is incredibly full," she said. "I'm lucky to have a great job, great kids and what looks like an exciting future."

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