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Davis leaving Tucson’s Jewish History Museum to lead Baltimore museum

Sol Davis talks to middle school students from the Paulo Freire Freedom School at the Holocaust History Center in May 2018. (Photo courtesy Jewish History Museum)

As director of Tucson’s Jewish History Museum/Holocaust History Center for the past five years, Sol Davis, Ph.D., helped expand the possibilities for Jewish museums nationwide.

“He took this idea and transformed it into a living testament of what a museum should be, which is not a place to store artifacts — we’re a leader as a community of conscience,” says Eric Schindler, incoming president of the museum board. Under Davis’ leadership,  Schindler says, the JHM/HHC is seen “as a true beacon, a shining light, a place to engage with the community and to advocate for social justice and to use the memory of the Holocaust to help ensure that it’ll never happen again.”

Sol Davis takes part in the Jewish History Museum’s virtual annual meeting Nov. 1, 2020 from the Brink studio in Tucson (Photo courtesy Jewish History Museum)

Melissa Yaverbaum, executive director of the Council of American Jewish Museums, confirms this assessment. “With the leadership of Sol Davis, the Jewish History Museum has become known across the country as a lead voice in the field. It has taken admirable steps in advocacy, working with artists and immigrants, and in writing a new narrative of the Jewish experience,” she says.

At the end of the month, Davis will be leaving Tucson to become the executive director of the Jewish Museum of Maryland, in Baltimore.

“We are very excited about Sol bringing his leadership, creativity, and relationship-building skills to the JMM,” Nancy Kutler, president of the Baltimore museum’s board of trustees, told JMORE Baltimore Jewish Living, explaining that Davis was selected because of his emphasis on viewing museums as living vehicles for societal change.

Early focus on Holocaust education 

Before becoming interim director of the JHM in 2015, Davis worked for the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona as director of Holocaust education and commemoration and of Hebrew High, later adding the directorship of the Jewish Community Relations Council to his portfolio.

Stuart Mellan, former president and CEO of the Federation, remembers how he came to meet Davis in 2005, when the Federation and Arizona Center for Judaic Studies brought Elie Wiesel, the noted Holocaust survivor, author, and Nobel laureate, to Centennial Hall.

Wiesel “was getting older and his agent was very protective of any time he would spend,” allotting 15 minutes for a reception before the main event. “Two days before the event we get a call from Elie Wiesel’s agent saying that he’s going to be greeting an eighth-grade class in the reception. We were sort of taken aback. We were surprised,” Mellan says, explaining that Davis had his students at Tucson Country Day School read Wiesel’s “Night” and write essays that he had sent to Wiesel. “Elie Wiesel was so taken by it that he insisted that he meet with Sol and the students. So that was when we met him, and we saw that he was an exceptional person.”

Davis oversaw the expansion of the Holocaust History Center, which first opened in 2013 as a one-room exhibit focusing on the lives of more than 200 survivors who had made Southern Arizona their home. Davis was named executive director a year after taking on the interim title.

“Under Sol’s direction and the building of our modern Holocaust History Center, the Jewish History Museum has become a jewel in the heart of Tucson and for the entire Jewish and Southern Arizona community. Sol has blended unique leadership skills with academic excellence, to make our Tucson museum a force in the national dialogue of what a museum should be and what our American Jewish communities of medium size can aspire to create,” says Barry Kirschner, chair of the museum board.

For his part, Davis describes himself as an educator and “pretty shy, introverted person” who at first was unsure how he would fare in the public-facing role of JCRC director.

He learned “community relations is also an education job, and part of that work was educating the public about the community and Jewish values.” Pairing those JCRC relationships with the museum “and the special history and aura of this historic temple building, that’s when the magic happened,” he says, referring to the JHM’s original function as the site of Arizona’s first formal Jewish congregation.

The building of the Holocaust History Center was the realization of a 50-year aspiration in the community, Davis says, noting the importance, starting with the first exhibit of local survivor photographs and testimony, of presenting the Holocaust from the Jewish perspective, not the Nazi perspective.

The center’s contemporary human rights gallery has been central to bridging that history to ongoing concerns. Exhibits there have shed light on violence against LGBTQIA+ people, the plight of the Rohingya people in Myanmar, and asylum seekers on the U.S.-Mexico border. The museum also has focused on contemporary expressions of anti-Semitism, including a graffiti attack inside the HHC.

On Oct. 26, the Arizona Board of Education added instruction on the Holocaust and other genocides to its standards for middle and high school. The museum is contributing to a statewide curriculum that will link the testimony of local Holocaust survivors to the history being taught — for example, a unit on concentration camps could feature the testimony of the late Klara Swimmer — bringing Davis’ educational focus full circle.

“We are losing a pillar in this community,” Bill Kugelman, a 96-year-old Holocaust survivor, says of Davis, praising his knowledge of the Holocaust and Jewish history, and wishing him well in his new position.

“He made it his business to find out details of the Holocaust in a way that very few people that were not there would know,” Kugelman adds, “besides being a gentle soul and a loving human being.”

Moving forward 

Schindler, who chaired the search committee for Davis’ replacement, notes that a measure of a leader’s success is how well an organization can do after that person moves on. He has great optimism for the museum’s future, especially after the board concluded its search this week.

“On behalf of the board of directors, it is my great pleasure to announce that Gugulethu Moyo will become the new executive director of the JHM,” Schindler says. “She currently serves as the director of operations for the museum and will be transitioning to her new leadership role concurrent with Sol Davis’ departure. Ms. Moyo has had an extraordinary, multifaceted career spanning three continents, including being the founding director of an international non-profit based in London.  We are very excited about where the JHM will grow in this next chapter of its existence, under the leadership of our new director.”