Moscow’s Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center is like no other Jewish Museum. First, there’s its size: according to its organizers, it’s the largest Jewish history museum in the world. Then, there are the exhibits. A Russian news site called it “Jewish Disneyland.” One exhibit in the massive, state-of-the-art institution virtually displays Jewish historical clothing on the observer and transports viewers back in time to important locations in Jewish history. But what really sets the Center apart is not its size or its contents. It’s the location, in the heart of the capital of Russia, and the warm affection it receives from the Russian president.
Vladamir Putin gave the Center a large donation and he has been personally involved with the Center for over half a decade. Israeli President Shimon Peres, who attended the opening ceremony, said of Putin and Russia, “I came here to say thank you. Thank you for a thousand years of hospitality.”
Other Jews, interviewed by the New York Times, similarly gushed with enthusiasm and praise. Russia’s chief rabbi (and a close ally of Putin’s) said Jews “have never felt as comfortable in Russia as today.” Aleksandr A. Dobrovinsky, a lawyer, who teared up when he saw an exhibit on Odessa, said, “What the president has done, I simply tip my hat to him.”
Putin’s relationship with the international Jewish community has warmed over the years to outright affection. Russia, the Times notes, wants Jews to come back.
As the Jewish press glowingly reports, Putin invites the Chabad rabbis to the Kremlin a minimum of once a month, and queries them in detail about the mood of the Jewish community in Russia:
On the 7th of February Russian President Vladimir Putin received the Head Rabbi of Russia (FEOR) Berl Lazar in the Kremlin … As Berl Lazar reported, the Russian President was extremely interested in questions concerning the life of Russia’s Jewish community … In Berl Lazar’s opinion, the president was interested to find out that at present Jews feel much freer in Russia, that they can make the decision of whether to stay or whether to leave freely, inasmuch as they feel support from the government … But the main thing, in Rabbi Lazar’s opinion, is that “the President has a healthy understanding of Russia’s future and the role of religion in society.” (International Jewish News, No. 10, February 2002) and On the 19th of March the President of Russia Vladimir Putin met with representatives of the Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia in the Kremlin …
Putin spoke of how important it is to set up a“insurmountable barrier” to xenophobia and religious extremism, and noted the Jewish people’s contribution to Russian affairs. The President spoke about the address of the Jewish community of Russia to the USA on the matter of repeal of the Jackson-Vanik amendment, since which the “process is developing positively” … President of the Federation of Jewish Communities of the CIS and Chairman of the FEOR oversight committee Lev Leviev was also present at the Kremlin meeting, along with rabbis from a number of Russian cities. (International Jewish News, No. 11, March 2002)
What is reportedly the world’s largest Jewish museum has opened in Moscow.
Israeli President Shimon Peres (who is on an official visit to Russia) joined Jewish and Russian leaders for the gala inauguration Nov. 8 of the Russian-Jewish Museum of Tolerance.
“At this emotional moment I can see generations of my people before my very eyes and I carry them with me,” Mr. Peres said. “My parents were born in Russia. In my home we spoke Yiddish, Hebrew, and Russian….This museum is an eloquent declaration of the principles of tolerance toward people and their freedom. Here we can see man part with the past and move into the future with hope.”
The museum occupies a converted bus garage that was turned over to the Jewish community in 1999. The German architectural fir Graft Lab carried out the transformation. The museum design firm Ralph Appelbaum Associates carried out the exhibition design.
According to the Christian Science Monitor:
The nearly 50,000 sq.-ft., $60-million center uses interactive media technologies, recreations ofshtetl (small Jewish town) life, and 13 hours of videotaped personal testimony to tell the story of Russia’s Jewish community. It focuses on the past 175 years, which saw Russian Jews move from the Czarist-era Pale of the Settlement (an area of Russia where Jews were allowed permanent residence) into mainstream Russian and Soviet society, face near extinction when the Nazis invaded the USSR, and later chafe for decades under official Soviet restrictions that kept them from many areas of higher education and important state jobs.
Writes the New York Times:
Touch the screen in one exhibit in this vast building and a visitor can appear in a mirror dressed in the garb of a 19th-century blacksmith, or a trader or a “representative of the intelligentsia.” Tap a Torah in a virtual synagogue, and a cantor’s voice rings in the air. In a virtual Odessa, one can sit down in an interactive cafe to chat with long-dead writers. [...] The displays here mingle brighter historical material, about thriving village life and the high status of Jews in the Soviet intellectual firmament, with darker chapters.
In the Odessa cafe, for example, the viewer can tap on a table to answer the question, “If your store were destroyed by a pogrom, what would you do? A) Give up and emigrate to the West, B) Stay in my hometown and try to rebuild the store, C) Join a Jewish self-defense league and prepare for the next pogrom or, D) I am still in shock.” The Internet television channel Dozhd described the museum, created by the New York-based designer Ralph Appelbaum, as a “Jewish Disneyland.”