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A Jewish museum for everybody

Kaleidoscope at the entrance to the Mizel MuseumAN idea either evolves or goes the way of dusty death. Take the Mizel Museum. What began 30 years ago in a display case at BMH has transcended space, time and self-definition to ensure its significance in the 21st century.

The Mizel Museum has revolutionized the very notion of what constitutes a Jewish museum — and the whole world is watching.

Ellen Premack, executive director of the Mizel, tells the IJN that the genesis for the museum originated with one insightful man’s trip to London.

“The story goes that Rabbi Stanley Wagner, then spiritual leader of BMH, went to London and saw the Jewish museum there,” she says. “He said, ‘We can do that in Denver. Let’s find a space at our synagogue.’”

The artwork, exhibited in a one-room gallery with glass cabinets on either end, attracted its share of delighted onlookers and comments. But physical limitations and the desire for additional pieces demanded more expansive options.

“We outgrew that area, so we began using every other available space [at BMH],” Premack says. “We started using Fisher Hall, the chapel, all the hallways. The space overflowed.”

In 1982, BMH congregants Larry and Carol Mizel rolled up their philanthropic sleeves and provided funding, which Mizel instinctively downplays.

“We needed projects, collections,” he says. “Rabbi Wagner was the person who had the energy and foresight to start and develop the program. I played a nominal role, providing some limited financial support that enabled it to grow. But Wagner’s skills really made it all happen.

“This collaboration between initially limited funding and the rabbi’s entrepreneurial skills opened the doors to our future endeavors.”

Mizel, an astute businessman, could have lent his charitable support to countless organizations. Instead, he chose a small, in-house museum.

“I derive a lot of personal satisfaction from this,” he says. “When I was young, I believed there was a need to bring the Jewish and non-Jewish communities together. I have always tried to bring people of different faiths, beliefs and religions together.”

In 1986, Rabbi Wagner introduced the Hats exhibit. Called “It Shall be a Crown Upon Your Head: Headwear Symbolism in Judaism, Christianity and Islam,” it was the first interfaith exhibition of its kind in the world.

“Only a couple of yarmulkes were present among the 20 clergy that were present at the event,” Mizel recalls. “Even Archbishop Stafford was there, and he had never been in a Jewish house of worship.”

In 2004, the museum dropped “Judaica” from its title to further reflect its outreach mission without sacrificing its Jewish character.

“I thought that as we further expanded our outreach to the community, I wanted to make sure that people understood that this facility was intended for everyone,” Mizel says. “I remember a government agency we were dealing with saying, ‘You can’t host this function because you’re a religious organization.’

“I said, ‘We’re not a religious organization.’ This is a name. But people create their own images. When you market any product, you look for a good name to sell it.

“That’s why we dropped ‘Judaica,’ to make sure we were not interpreted in a narrow sense.”

The Mizel Museum moved into its current home at Rodef Shalom in 2004.

WHEN people think of museums, particularly Jewish ones, they usually envision decorative menorah displays or a retrospective of seder plates and Torah mantles throughout the centuries.

But instead of settling for artifacts that were pleasing to the eye, the Mizel ushered in a new era of education and multiculturalism at what became its three interconnected sites: the museum; The CELL (The Counter-?terrorism Education Learning Lab); and Babi Yar Park.

“From my perspective, we could have started out like any standard Jewish museum you would find in any community, where you did the pretty menorah exhibits,” says Premack, who became executive director in 1999.

Although the thematic content of the Mizel Museum concentrates on Jewish life and culture, the Holocaust, immigration and Diaspora programming, she says that “we had to reinvent ourselves as those subjects changed, not just in our community but in our museum.”

The Mizel staff took “a long hard look at the demographics of who lived in Denver to determine who needed to be touched,” she says. “We decided to move toward multiculturalism and connecting with all aspects of human experience, beginning with Bridges of Understanding.”

Originally a stationary program at the Mizel, it has since morphed into a traveling exhibit that serves as a catalyst for education and dialogue in the schools. It encompasses the Jewish, Muslim, Native American, African-American, Hispanic-Latino and Asian Pacific cultures.

At the time of its founding in 1994, Bridges of Understanding “was viewed as an outrageous thing for a Jewish museum do,” says Premack. “We were one of the first Jewish museums in the country to outreach to all the different communities that make up the essence of community.”

Transitioning from a museum that taught about specific Jewish concepts and Israel from a religious standpoint “and turning that corner to reach the wider culture represented a huge step for us,” she says.

“And everything we did in that context over the following years wasn’t challenging at all. In fact it was a joy to position Jewish culture within the perspective of different people’s lives, backgrounds and experiences. That’s how we teach multiculturalism now.”

Three years ago, the Mizel Museum realized more changes were in order. Sticking with the status quo no longer met current educational needs — or the needs of the world.

“4,000-Year Road Trip: Gathering Sparks” examines what it means to be Jewish not only in the 21st century but within diverse pockets of Judaism spanning the globe.

“After all these years of changing exhibits and themes, we established one permanent exhibit for three years that examined 17 subjects. And off that single exhibit, we could teach anything,” she explains.

“But we still deliberately communicate the beauty of our 4,000-year-old history, as well as the objects themselves.”

Larry Mizel says he still has to pinch himself “to think that Ellen and her team have created such wonderful exhibits. It exemplifies the fact that you don’t have to spend jillions of dollars; you can do it with people whose hearts and souls are fully involved. You can feel their sensitivities.”

DIASPORA Jews are acutely aware that Israelis suffer the destructive force of terrorist attacks by Palestinians and Arab nationalists. The very phrase “terrorist attack” was all too familiar before Sept. 11.

But ever since that crisp autumn morning in New York, Washington, DC, and a Pennsylvania field, Americans understand terrorism at the gut level. It’s no longer removed and remote.

The Mizel Museum launched The CELL in 2005 to educate the public about the risk of terrorism. “The emerging focus was that we as Jews, who have a tie to Israel, had a better awareness of terrorism before the US woke up to it on 9/11,” Mizel says.

“I felt we were uniquely situated to provide the proper background and support to educate the public on the nature of terrorism.

“We’re fortunate that we’ve only had a few major incidents in the US since 9/11. But if you read the global news on a daily basis, you can’t ignore that terrorism is widespread throughout the world.

“The risk continues to grow, and the public has no idea what to be aware of regarding terrorism. They are ignorant of the warning signs and what to do if they see them.”

That’s the job of The CELL, which will soon reopen with a redesign built around the eight signs of terrorism.

“We took the existing subject matter and incorporated it into part of the design, so it’s an integral tool in the educational process,” he says.

BABI Yar Park, founded in 1971 by Denver Jews, is a memorial to thousands of Jews, as well as Gypsies, Ukrainians and others, who were massacred at the Babi Yar ravine outside Kiev between 1941-1943.

In 1969, the late Mayor William H. McNichols, Jr., dedicated 27 acres of land at the corner of Yale and Havana at the request of the Committee of Concern for Soviet Jewry and the Babi Yar Park Foundation. It officially changed from a reserved open space to a park in the early 1980s.

The Mizel Museum was asked to resuscitate Babi Yar Park about five or six years ago. “It had become a vortex,” Mizel says, “with little activity. Babi Yar Park was a destination without life.”

An international architectural team is in the process of creating the September 11 Memorial, which commemorates victims of terrorism. Denver Parks & Recreation and community leaders are assisting the Mizel Museum in its efforts.

Premack arranged to bring 23 pieces of the demolished World Trade Center in New York to Denver for incorporation into the memorial.

Both Mizel and Premack emphasize that this new memorial does not replace the Holocaust either in intention or meaning. While there may be a few objections swirling out there, they haven’t heard them.

“If you want a site to be relevant and meaningful and bring it to life, you have to go forward,” says Mizel. “This is Babi Yar Park. We’re bringing additional elements to it, but we’re not taking anything away.”

Premack says that the Mizel Museum has devised new and varied approaches to teaching the Holocaust. “For example, we based our Holocaust exhibit on Deborah Howard’s portraits. They tell stories rather than delving into a history that kids learn in school.”

“Generations: Survivor Stories,” a digital compilation of narratives from Denverites who survived the Holocaust, previewed on Nov. 9, 2011. Available to the public during two Salon Nights this month and again on March 15, the exhibit’s opening night is scheduled for April 18.

“So many Jewish museums depict the suffering, struggle and horror of the Holocaust,” says Premack, who suggests that the reiteration of grim black-and-white archival photos can desensitize the viewer. “That will not happen at the Mizel Museum.”

The Mizel Museum’s three interconnected sites are pursuing separate yet cohesive missions. At Babi Yar Park, people can reflect in silence. The CELL lures visitors into the daunting reality of the modern world. The museum’s programs and exhibits aspire to generate cultural understanding and mitigate global tension.

“The three really blend together well,” Premack says, “because they represent how the museum’s history has come full circle.”

ART, artifacts, collections. Immigration, the Little Rock Nine, Jewish songwriters, the Holocaust. Salon Night, educational summer camps, the art of Shabbat. Folklore, the ceremonies of other cultures, contemporary amulets.

This small sampling of Jewish experience in all its forms sparkles at the Mizel Museum, now celebrating its 30-year road trip through Jewish life and the revolving wheel of multicultural society.

And despite its evolutionary travels, expansion plans are in full force.

The move from BMH-BJ to the old Rodef Shalom building in 2004 was supposed to be “a temporary, two-year stopover,” Premack says. “But we decided Rodef was a very good place.

“Now we are experiencing logistical difficulties. We are constantly trying to figure out where to move things due to conflicting programs and exhibits. The current museum almost needs an operations director because it gets so hectic.

“We look forward to a future with a permanent home where we can build what we consider appropriate new space for the museum.”

LARRY Mizel agrees that the ideal facility will accommodate “all those items that we’ve accumulated and the programming we envision for the future.” He’d also like to see the museum situated in the cultural district downtown.

The CELL “will transform from an exhibit with programming to a viable educational center with an exhibit,” he says. It also would occupy  another location. Babi Yar Park, which will stay at the corner of Yale and Havana, will change in terms of thematic layering.

Mizel, a native of Tulsa, is asked whether the Mizel Museum might be easier to operate in Denver than in other cities. “I can’t comment on other cities,” he admits, “but I know we were able to do it here because of our relationships within the community. Like any organization, you need people who care and are willing to do the work — and ultimately write the check.”

A second-generation American, Mizel compares the museum to the immigrant Jewish experience in the US. “Our country is a country of immigrants,” he says. “Go back 100 years, and you’ll see that Jews who were born here did not assimilate into society. They lacked the opportunities to choose the extent of their assimilation.

“Denver is beyond welcoming for everyone, no matter who you are and no matter where you came from. You can be anything here — a US senator, a mayor, the president of a company.

“There are no glass ceilings, no artificial barriers. Everyone has a clear shot. And that’s one of the beauties of Colorado.”

Premack estimates that the exhibits, educational activities and camp sessions presented at the museum impacted several thousand people last year alone. Colorado Jews represent the majority of visitors, but tourists from both US coasts, Israel and South America also tour the museum.

“People are hearing about us,” says Premack. “We’re getting national coverage. I wouldn’t use the phrase ‘preeminent Jewish destination’ in Denver quite yet, but that’s certainly our goal — and within reach.”

Copyright © 2012 by the Intermountain Jewish News

Andrea Jacobs

IJN Senior Writer |

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