Driving one of Tucson’s new Israeli teen emissaries, Leah Avuno, from a lunch and learn on the University of Arizona campus to her next destination, Cantor Avraham Alpert found his talking point. Avuno, originally from Ethiopia, told him Ethiopian Jews would never have made it to Israel if it weren’t for the American Jews who funded their aliyah. Then she asked why American Jews cared about the plight of her people.
He answered by telling Avuno about the role of U.S. Jews in the civil rights movement and the parallels between blacks and Jews as victims of discrimination. They spoke about Jews of color in Israel, Ethiopia and Uganda. It was only later that Alpert, the spiritual leader of Congregation Bet Shalom, came up with a simpler answer: The Torah has always tasked the Jews with bringing justice to the world.
Days after that fruitful conversation, Alpert examined the question of justice as host of the Jewish History Museum’s first gallery chat on Friday, Sept. 2. He spoke about the quote from Deuteronomy that adorns the entrance of the Holocaust History Center at the Jewish History Museum, “Justice, justice you shall pursue.”
“Racial concern for equality is a manifestation of our mandate as Jews, to be just and fair,” he told the 20 or so participants gathered for the chat, arguing that the way to justice lies in looking past appearances into the heart of a matter.
Fairness and justice are generated by practical human actions, Alpert says. If we work toward kindness, applying justice in everything we do, we can allow God’s divine presence to grow and prevail.
“If we want to live in a just world, then we have to make it happen,” Alpert says. “It’s not going to happen in the celestial realm.”
These new bi-weekly, 15-minute talks will focus on specific artifacts at the museums. The host of each event will be a community member with a personal connection to the subject matter.
Bryan Davis, executive director of the Jewish History Museum, says the turnout for the inaugural chat far exceeded his expectations. The intimate gallery chats are designed to end the week on a positive note by attracting new visitors, he says.
Gloria Goldman, a local lawyer who is a child of Holocaust survivors, attended the gallery chat with her son, lawyer Mo Goldman. During the 1980s, she was involved with a volunteer community outreach program that brought Holocaust survivors living in Tucson to local high schools to speak to students.
Pointing to local artifacts and the video of local survivors’ testimony playing in the background, Goldman says that what she appreciates most about the center is that it is concurrently dedicated to the past and focused on today.
“Knowing the people that lived in this community, it’s an important memorial to them, but it’s important in light of what’s happening in the world today,” says Goldman. “It’s important that as many young people come and see this, and understand the dangers of hate.”
Ben Lepley, founder of local architecture design firm Tectonicus Constructs L.L.C., was involved with the construction of the site. He spoke about the concepts used in creating the Holocaust History Center.
Upon entering the museum, guests are forced into a confined space with open, unfinished steel. The claustrophobic design was intentional, in order to recreate the atmosphere of the freight cars that transported Jewish prisoners to concentration camps, Lepley says.
The large gate that opens up to the exhibit was built with wood dating back to the 1880s that was salvaged from the original house where the museum stands today.
Davis says the most precious materials, and resources, are the individuals who’ve shared their family histories here.
The gallery chats, he says, are “a way to give 18 different people this year, and hopefully again next year, the opportunity to share a part of their family history with the community in a museum setting.”
“It was wonderful” how Alpert crafted his speech around an age-old piece of text, Davis says, making “the connections across centuries, into today, here and in Israel.”
Steve Kozachik, Tucson City councilman for Ward 6, attended the opening chat to show his support for the important work the Jewish History Museum does.
Kozachik, who has co-sponsored community events with the JHM and local mosques, says projects like the gallery chats have an important impact on Tucson, rooted in social justice.
“When Bryan tries staging events like this, I understand that it really helps to speak to the broader community,” Kozachik says.
As Kozachik toured the museum, he noticed how the rhetoric aimed at the Jews during the Holocaust mirrors some of the language being used in the current political cycle.
Sadly, we have not learned how to stop hating, Kozachik says, adding that it is gratifying to see an organization remain committed to building partnerships as well as reminding the community of the importance of respecting every religious and ethnical background.
“We’re all in this together,” he says. “That’s what this place is about, and that’s what these talks are about.”
The gallery chats are free and open to the public. Those who attend will receive a buy one get one free lunch coupon, good for that day only, for either 5 Points Market, 756 S. Stone Ave., or Cafe Desta, 758 S. Stone Ave.
The next chat, scheduled for Friday, Sept. 16 at 11:30 a.m., will be hosted by Rabbi Ruven Barkan, who will speak about the Hans Spear memorabilia, commemorating the late Tucsonan, who was one of the U.S. Army’s “Ritchie Boys,” German immigrants who carried out counter-intelligence operations in Germany during World War II. For a listing of future dates, hosts and other events slated for this season, visit jewishhistory museum.org. Also look for the re-launch of the museum’s Facebook page and new Instagram account.