Museum of too much tolerance?


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.

The Meaning of Marriage


Late spring in Los Angeles: cool, foggy mornings, with sun breaking through around midday. The strawberries are sweet and luscious; the gardens are full of roses. It’s the season of simchas. Our calendars are crowded with graduations and family parties, but most of all with weddings.

The cascading flowers, the gowns and tuxes, the delectable spread on the buffet tables are only a frame for the most beautiful sight at any wedding: the faces of the bride and groom under the chuppah, or at unguarded moments when they think nobody is watching. You notice the way they look at each other and the way they hold hands and the way they dance together — caught up, for those moments, in a magic circle where nobody else exists.

They speak to each other under the marriage canopy, voices breaking with emotion, promising love and friendship, respect and understanding. They sign their names to promises so vast and deep, they would make you tremble if you really thought about them — but the bride and groom are not thinking at that moment, not thinking at all. They are in a fever of joy; they can hardly breathe; they are caught up in the magic circle.

It is all over in a few minutes: the cups of wine, the ancient Hebrew words of commitment, the rings, the blessings, the sound of shattering glass. But something profound has changed in those moments. A covenant is sealed; two people are set apart for one another.

It’s a long way from the chuppah to the fifth chapter of Numbers, where the Torah takes us in this season of roses and romance. It’s grim reading material for wedding guests, and even more so for a bride and groom.

For this week’s portion takes us to the heart of a troubled marriage. There is an irate husband, wild with suspicion; a wife who may or may not be guilty of adultery; a public ordeal designed to bring to light the truth. The suspected adulteress is tested by being forced to drink the “bitter waters” — water mixed with dust from the floor; water in which the priest has dissolved divine curses written on a scroll. The ritual may be primitive, disturbing, even misogynistic to our eyes. But in its time, it provided a sacred, orderly structure to resolve the crisis, and to manage the explosive emotions evoked when marital trust has been compromised: jealousy, rage, humiliation, a sense of betrayal, grief, the murderous desire for revenge.

Asks one commentator: Why does the Torah permit the Name of God to be dissolved in water during this ritual? And he answers: God’s Name does not really disappear. For whenever peace is restored between husband and wife, the Holy One is present.

And maybe it does make sense to read Naso in the midst of the wedding season. For it reminds us that what matters is not the poetic promises we utter under the chuppah, but the prosaic reality of living up to them in marriage. We get a devastating glimpse of how bitter it can be to lack faith in our partner, how hard it is to forgive and make peace. We’re asked to contemplate what it might mean to have God present in our relationship.

On their wedding day, two people set themselves apart for one another, hands joined inside a magic circle — breathless, tearful, in a fever of joy. And God is in the center of the marriage when it’s many years later and the covenant still stands; when the vast, deep promises have somehow been fulfilled, for one partner lies in a hospital bed, too frail to walk or to get dressed anymore, and the other one is still there; and they’re still holding hands.

“Mistress, know yourself,” says Rosalind in Shakespeare’s “As You Like It.” “Down on your knees, and thank heaven, fasting, for a good man’s love.”

Blessed is the Holy One, who comes into our lives through the love of a good man or woman; who gives us a taste of eternity in the steadiness of our beloved; who teaches us faith and constancy and forgiveness through the covenant of marriage.


Rabbi Janet R. Marder is director of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, Pacific Southwest Council. This summer, she will become Senior Rabbi of Congregation Beth Am, Los Altos Hills, Calif.