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Decision coming on national Jewish museum in Washington

Daniel Libeskind's design for the national Museum of the Jewish People (Courtesy Ori Soltes)

WASHINGTON (Washington Jewish Week) — Washington needs a major national museum of the Jewish people — at least that’s what a group of local heavy hitters and international Jewish celebrities believes. They have been trying for more than five years to get that museum built, and a decision to be taken this fall will determine their success.

“Given Washington’s role as a pilgrimage point for Americans and an international audience, and given the fact that the major museum in Washington associated with Jews is the United States Holocaust Museum, I feel the other aspects of Jewish life — religion, tradition and culture — need to be explored for that tremendous audience,” says Ori Soltes, former curator of the city’s B’nai B’rith Klutznick Museum.

Led by Soltes, the group, whose origins can be traced to the board of directors during his tenure at the Klutznick in the late 1990s, includes Nobel Prize laureate Elie Wiesel, violinist Itzhak Perlman and members of the Snyder (Washington Redskins football) family of Potomac, which will contribute music memorabilia for a wing of the proposed National Museum of the Jewish People (

Whether that museum will be built is in the hands of the General Services Administration, which administers federal properties, including the District’s Old Post Office, a 112-year-old facility. Prodded by a cost-conscious Congress anxious to rid itself of underutilized federal properties that add to the deficit — the Old Post Office currently houses some 450 federal employees and loses about $5 million annually in operating costs — and authorized by the Old Post Office Redevelopment Act of 2008, the GSA issued a Request for Proposals to redevelop the site on Pennsylvania Avenue between the White House and the Capitol.

Several groups, including the one led by Soltes, have submitted proposals. (One of the other groups reportedly is headed by Donald Trump, but Pat Daniels, GSA’s senior project manager, says she is not authorized to reveal the names of the other respondents.) A decision is expected in November.

The Soltes group is partnering with Hyatt Hotels, which would turn the Old Post Office into a luxury hotel while the museum would be located on the space currently occupied by the glass annex, which would be torn down. The group has no plans for an alternative site.

Soltes, Goldman professorial lecturer in theology and fine arts at Georgetown University, is excited by the fact that Daniel Libeskind — whose work includes the Jewish museum in Berlin, the Danish Jewish Museum in Copenhagen and the Wohl Centre at Bar-Ilan University in Israel — has designed the project.

“His enthusiasm for this project is boundless” both because of his interest in the museum and because it is his first Washington-based project, Soltes says, adding that “I’m thrilled with the design because it will be not only be an architectural marvel enhancing that area of Pennsylvania Avenue, but also will work well as a museum and as a Jewish museum.”

The planned museum will encompass about 100,000 square feet on four floors with garden areas, an atrium and space for conferences.

Insofar as exhibits are concerned, it will have three components, Soltes explains. There will be rotating exhibits and a permanent space devoted to subjects such as antiquities, Judaica, art, music, medicine, science and sports.

There also will be technology to enhance those areas, including, for example, the ability to walk around a holograph reproduction of important buildings designed by Jewish architects such as Libeskind’s Jewish museum in Berlin or Frank Gehry’s museum in Bilbao, Spain; an interactive display in which to play a game of chess against Bobby Fisher; and the chance to hit a computerized Sandy Koufax fastball.

Soltes says he is excited by possibilities that technology offers in a museum, but also is aware of its drawbacks. The overuse of technological enhancements “can get in the way of the audience” understanding what the museum is offering, he says. He believes the museum won’t be plagued by that kind of error.

“I hope we will have technology, and it will be a serious enhancement but not a distraction,” he says.

Raising money for the project has been a “Catch-22 situation,” Soltes says. “People are reluctant to open their pocketbooks until the GSA decides, and the GSA decision will in part depend on the amount of money raised and the potential to raise the amount needed.”

His group has raised about $500,000. For the building and to establish an endowment so entrance would be free, the amount needed could be in excess of $100 million.

Soltes says the project is “unique” in that it combines a nonprofit and for-profit project, and for that reason he is confident that GSA will choose his museum-hotel proposal.