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Jewish Journal

Museum of too much tolerance?

by David Suissa

May 8, 2008 | 6:00 pm

Why would anyone ever want to take on Rabbi Marvin Hier, founder and leader of the prestigious Simon Wiesenthal Center's Museum of Tolerance, who for two years running has been named "the most powerful rabbi in America"?

That question popped into my mind on a sunny morning about two months ago. For some reason, I didn't make my usual right turn on Beverly Drive from Cashio Street, and instead, stayed on Cashio until I got to Roxbury Drive, which is when I saw those stirring testaments to the great American tradition of free speech: angry protest signs on neighborhood lawns.

First, I saw several "Stop the Museum of Tolerance Expansion" signs planted on front yards and balconies, but those didn't get me too excited. I had heard about the controversy, which was covered in local papers, and I figured it was just another case of residents worried about stuff like traffic, construction noise and parking.

Then I saw a huge sign with the word "Shame" on it, and that got my attention. I stopped the car so I could read the rest: "If you support the Museum of Tolerance -- Then help us Protect the Memories of the Holocaust & Armenian Genocide Victims/Families. It is Intolerable to have Weddings, Parties and Bar Mitzvahs at a Holocaust Museum. Help us Stop this Disgraceful Act!!!!!"

That was enough for me to start knocking on doors.

Within a few weeks, my head was spinning from attending late-night neighborhood group meetings and reviewing reams of documents, all revolving around the future plans of this world-renowned institution.

I met residents who have lived within two blocks of the museum for more than 40 years, including several museum members. Most of these residents were around during the first go-round in 1986, when an arduous process of protests and negotiations led to the many zoning restrictions and conditions for use of the current museum property. Now, a group of neighbors is accusing the museum of violating some of these conditions and of using its political power to undo the original restrictions and obtain city approval for the desired expansion.

But that alone is not what has kept me glued to this story. Frankly, I tend to doze off when I hear about municipal codes, conditional use permits, zoning ordinances, environmental impact reports (EIR), mitigation measures and planning and land use committees. No, what has kept me interested is not so much the legal angle as the bar mitzvah and wedding angle.

This is the question that has intrigued me: Should the Museum of Tolerance tolerate parties and simchas in a place that commemorates the death of 6 million Jews?

Some residents themselves are asking that question. Check out the message on the home page of preservethelegacy.org, the neighborhood group coordinating the opposition to the expansion:

"We support the mission of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, and that is why we oppose the proposed expansion.... Simon Wiesenthal let Rabbi Marvin Hier use his name for an institution that would work 'to prevent a repetition of a human disaster' -- not a function hall and catering facility where people will drink alcohol, dance and party until midnight! We need your help to prevent the destruction of Simon Wiesenthal's legacy."
Ouch.

The museum, for its part, is downplaying the role of "catered events" in its plans. At a neighborhood meeting I attended, a spokesperson for the museum, Susan Burden, and the museum's attorney, Mitch Menzer, explained that the expansion is needed to accommodate a significant increase in visitors, as well as for important new cultural and educational programs. They also emphasized that they want to work with the neighborhood group to address their concerns, and that the group should not formalize its opposition until the museum has had a chance to fully present the project and explain recent modifications, as well as initiate an EIR.

As far as catered events, museum officials feel they are entirely appropriate for an institution that is evolving into a major cultural center. The opposition believes the museum is under growing financial pressure, and that they need the revenue that would be generated from catered events.

Of course, it's also possible that the protesters are using the wedding and bar mitzvah angle as an emotional hook to draw attention to their case.

In any event, it's a complicated story, one that has consumed the social life of at least one activist: museum neighbor and entertainment lawyer Susan Gans.

For the past seven months, ever since the expansion plans were announced, this woman and an activist partner (who wants to remain anonymous), have been rallying the neighbors and leading the charge against the expansion. They were also involved with the struggle and negotiations in 1986, so this is not new territory. Gans' big priority these days is setting up preservethelegacy.org, which she hopes will help raise more than $100,000 for what she expects will be a long and costly battle.

I asked her where she found the energy to go up against such a powerful and politically connected opponent, knowing the odds are clearly stacked against her side.

Ever since Gans was a little girl growing up on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, her mother always encouraged her to stand up for what she believed in. Maybe that's one reason why Gans is undaunted by the prospect of going up against an institutional Goliath.

It also doesn't hurt that she thinks a man named Simon Wiesenthal, if he were alive today, might agree with her on a few things.

David Suissa, an advertising executive, is founder of OLAM magazine and Meals4Israel.com. He can be reached at dsuissa@olam.org.

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