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Human rights lawyer appointed as new Jewish History Museum director

Gugulethu Moyo, executive director of the Jewish History Museum/Holocaust History Center in Tucson (Photo courtesy Moyo)

Gugulethu Moyo, the new executive director of Tucson’s Jewish History Museum/Holocaust History Center, comes to the job with a unique set of qualifications, encompassing both her career as an international human rights lawyer and her personal Jewish journey.

In November, the museum’s board of directors unanimously approved her appointment as executive director to succeed Sol Davis. Moyo had been operations director at the JHM since July 2019.

“Gugu has the most remarkable biography I have ever seen in an applicant for a position” where he was involved in the review process, says Barry Kirschner, president of the museum’s board and himself an attorney.

Davis highly recommended Moyo for the position, Kirschner says, explaining that Davis “has a vision for how Gugu’s unique biography and background can launch the JHM into even more deserved acclaim as approaching the best of what a small community museum in the 21st century can offer.”

Moyo also had the support of the entire JHM staff, Kirschner says, noting that while the museum’s executive committee and a search committee had considered interviewing other candidates, after the 16-member JHM board interviewed her, “there was a unanimous vote to hire Gugu without continuing a search for other applicants.”

Moyo, 45, grew up in Zimbabwe and earned a bachelor of law degree from the University of Zimbabwe Harare in 1996. After serving as executive assistant to the CEO at Zimbabwe’s mining industry pension fund, Moyo earned another bachelor of law degree from University of Oxford in the United Kingdom. She was in-house counsel at Zimbabwe’s only independent newspaper, coordinating a team of lawyers challenging the government’s campaign to censor and shut down independent media, before becoming a program lawyer and media relations advisor for the International Bar Association in London. Five years later she launched Media Defence, the first legal aid organization dedicated to defending media freedom worldwide.

“At a time when Jewish museums are beginning to think more globally and expansively about their work, Gugu brings worldly experiences and sensibilities that I know will continue to propel the JHM into a leading position within the field,” Davis says. “Her long record of struggling to advance human rights around the world will serve the JHM well as it deepens its work in this area. I am thrilled to see Gugu assume this position and look forward to seeing where the museum goes under her leadership.”

It was the museum’s focus on anti-discrimination work — teaching people about anti-Semitism and other forms of hatred — that first intrigued her, Moyo says, adding that the idea of working in a Jewish community organization “was the most attractive element.” As an added bonus, her appointment as director of operations in July 2019 thrilled her father-in-law, John Polacheck, a longtime volunteer who had also been involved in the efforts to restore the Jewish History Museum building, then known as the Stone Avenue Temple, which is the oldest synagogue building in Arizona. After he died in November 2019, his memorial service was held at the museum.

Moving forward 

Now, due to the coronavirus pandemic, Moyo says, “we are in a situation where everything is changing.” Instead of exhibits and events happening inside museum buildings, “we are having to leave the walls and find people and fulfill the mission of the museum” through virtual programs. It is a time “of great opportunity and innovation, but at the same time there’s a great deal of uncertainty about what can be done.”

Moving some programs online has helped the JHM reach a wider audience, Moyo says. For example, people working from home may be able to drop in for the museum’s Friday morning gallery chats, or they can watch to recordings of them later.

The museum also is working toward moving some of its exhibit content online, which is a much bigger project.

While online programming is a boon for some, for others, particularly seniors who don’t have computers or high bandwidth connections, it is less accessible, Moyo notes. For some who simply lack skills, she says, the museum is working with other Jewish organizations such as the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona, the Tucson Jewish Community Center, and Jewish Family & Children’s Services to provide technical guidance.

Another major project, now that Arizona has a mandate for teaching the Holocaust and other genocides, is helping to create Holocaust education materials, using the museum’s archive of testimonies from survivors who have lived in Southern Arizona.

Long term, she says, “the core work is to continue with the mission of the museum, which is to tell the story of Jewish experience in this particular region and also to place our history alongside the history of others, to make connections between the things we have experienced as Jews, with the experience of others in our wider community,” including displacement, migration, and assimilation.

In non-COVID times, the majority of people who come to the museum are not Jewish — they are schoolchildren on class trips. The museum teaches not only about the dangers of anti-Semitism and other forms of racism, but also about discrimination on the basis of gender, sexual orientation, or ability, Moyo says, and “what our role as individuals is in protecting human rights.”

The Holocaust History Center also will continue to highlight contemporary human rights issues around the world, particularly those that look like genocide, such as the situation of the Uighurs, a mostly Muslim ethnic minority, in China.

Along with standing up for human rights as a lawyer — including having been arrested and beaten by police in Zimbabwe — Moyo is herself a survivor of genocide.

“One of my earliest childhood memories is of fleeing home in 1983 and 1984 when I was 6 years old and going into hiding during the Gukurahundi atrocities in which some 20,000 people from my ethnic group — Ndebele — were murdered,” she says. The massacres, which stemmed from rivalry between political parties, are classified as a genocide by the International Association of Genocide Scholars.

“I grew up understanding that people in power can decide they want to wipe out a group of people who are government opponents or people from a different ethnic group — whatever the cause of the hatred is, they can eliminate the other group,” she says.

Moyo saw becoming a lawyer as a way to work for democratic change in Zimbabwe. “Sadly, things haven’t improved,” she says. Moyo also was inspired by her father, Muna Ndulo, now a professor at Cornell Law School, who is an internationally recognized scholar on post-conflict constitution-making and served as a legal advisor to United Nations missions in South Africa at the end of apartheid, in Kosovo, East Timor, Afghanistan, and other places.  

Jewish journey

Although Jewish tradition discourages asking if someone is a Jew by choice, it is a mantle Moyo wears proudly.

“The tradition of not asking is a comfortable one and a good one,” she says, but at the same time, not telling stories about people who become converts, and why, can mean missing an opportunity to educate about the wide range of Jewish experiences.

“At this point, when we’re all talking about inclusivity, those stories should be told,” she says, adding that what is uncomfortable is when people ask “because they think you are not Jewish, because they make assumptions about what a Jewish person looks like.”

Rabbi Shira Stutman, senior rabbi of the Sixth & I synagogue in Washington, D.C., where Moyo and her husband, Joshua Polacheck, lived from 2011-2013, calls her “a deeply connected Jew, a creative and brilliant thinker, and an eternal learner. She has an expansive heart and a curious mind.

Gugulethu Moyo, fourth from left, at Yad Vashem on a Sixth and I congregational trip to Israel in 2013. Rabbi Shira Stutman is at far right; Moyo’s husband, Joshua Polacheck, is next to Stutman. (Photo courtesy Moyo)

“I have so many stories to tell, of traveling to Israel together, studying Torah, or just laughing over one thing or another,” Stutman says. “But one of my favorite Gugu stories is of the year she decided to take the Sixth & I Adult B’nai Mitzvah course. Midway through the year she and her husband moved to New Delhi, where he had been sent by the Foreign Service. But she was so committed to taking the class that she would get up at 4:30 a.m. to Skype in! We still miss her and Joshua here in D.C., but are so happy they’ve landed somewhere that they all can thrive.”

Moyo is, as far as anyone knows, the first Jew of Color to lead an American Jewish museum.

That is both gratifying and somewhat surprising, Moyo says, “considering that Jews around the world come from all sorts of places” and a variety of ethnic backgrounds. “We are a Diaspora.”

Surveys have shown that one in seven, or perhaps fewer, Jewish Americans identify as a person of color, she says.

Nevertheless, Moyo says, her appointment is “a great milestone, especially when racial justice in this country is the civil rights issue of our time.”

At the museum, “I am particularly interested in perhaps complicating the story that we tell about Jewish identity,” she says, noting that no two Jewish families have the same story of how they ended up in Southern Arizona.

In the Jewish museum field, or even among other mainstream Jewish organizations, she adds, the JHM board is unusually diverse in terms of ethnicity, gender, and sexual orientation. “We’re trying to show through practice that difference is something to be welcomed and celebrated.”

The museum doesn’t just teach anti-racism, it lives it, she says. “We embody what we are trying to achieve in the world.”

Melissa Martens Yaverbaum, executive director of the Council of American Jewish Museums, says “Gugulethu is a thought leader in the dialog surrounding American Jewish museums. She contributes new, thoughtful directions for museums seeking societal change, and will help us find our way as we aim to heal communities in these challenging times.”

An entry on Walter Polacheck in “A Record of Services of Wisconsin Physicians in WWII” notes his service in the European Theater. Walter Polacheck is Gugulethu Moyo’s husband’s grandfather. (Photo courtesy Moyo)

Moyo also draws inspiration from stories on her husband’s side of the family. His father was a civil rights activist, arrested and beaten in Mississippi in 1964. Her husband’s grandfather, Walter Polacheck — their 6-year-old daughter’s great-grandfather, she notes — was a physician serving in the U.S. Army in World War II. After the end of the war in Europe, he was sent to Nuremberg, where he treated the Nazi leadership on trial for war crimes. “This is history we talk about in our family often and reflect on, and also what must have been a really complicated experience to be a Jewish American soldier” at that time and place, with many of his own extended family wiped out in the Holocaust.

The family, until recently, included several Holocaust survivors, she says. “There are a lot of very personal reasons why this work matters.

“A lot of the work human rights lawyers do, and human rights defenders do, would not be necessary, I think, if people were educated about rights, and about tolerance, and difference.”