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Museum Quality

A proposal to redevelop Washington’s Old Post Office includes ambitious but ill-defined plans for a museum of world Jewish history

Allison Hoffman
November 17, 2011
A rendering of the proposed National Museum of the Jewish People, viewed from Pennsylvania Avenue.(Studio Daniel Libeskind)
A rendering of the proposed National Museum of the Jewish People, viewed from Pennsylvania Avenue.(Studio Daniel Libeskind)

Sometime next year, the U.S. Government Services Administration is expected to announce a winning redevelopment plan for Washington’s Old Post Office, a century-old Romanesque Revival building that presides over a grand stretch of Pennsylvania Avenue between the White House and Capitol Hill. Bidders include big names like Waldorf-Astoria, Trump, and the boutique Montage Hotels, but there is every possibility the victor could be Hyatt Hotels, which submitted the only disclosed plan with a public component: the capital’s first museum of world Jewish history. (The initial deadline for a decision was today, but yesterday the GSA announced it needed more time to consider the proposals.)

The National Museum of the Jewish People, as the plans call it, would occupy a delicate structure tucked into a hidden courtyard between a new hotel in the hulking, turreted Old Post Office building and the equally imposing headquarters of the Internal Revenue Service next door. “We would be the tail wagging the dog,” said Julius Kaplan, a Washington lawyer who is chairman of the decade-old nonprofit devoted to the museum effort, in a phone interview last week. The museum’s website mentions support from prominent Jewish figures—Elie Wiesel, Itzhak Perlman—as well as less-obvious supporters like Pakistan’s former ambassador to Washington, Jamsheed Marker, who along with Wiesel and Perlman is listed as an honorary trustee. For the bid, Kaplan recruited Daniel Libeskind, the architect of the Berlin Jewish Museum, who imagined an angular building surrounded by a tiered garden that would include an elevated High Line-style bower over an arcade threaded between the two landmark buildings and out to the street, where visitors would be welcomed with a sign in Hebrew reading pardes—a word frequently interpreted to mean Eden.

What wonders might fill this particular Jewish paradise, should it come to fruition, are a little harder to discern. The project’s backers advertise a handful of existing public commitments—including a promise from Arlette Snyder, mother of Redskins owner Dan Snyder, to donate her late husband’s music memorabilia, described as “covering every genre from classical music to the Beastie Boys”—but the general curatorial approach seems to owe something to Field of Dreams: Build it, and they will donate. The museum will have to compete with the existing Judaica collections of Washington’s most august institutions, from the Smithsonian to the Library of Congress—and, for ephemera, with Philadelphia’s new National Museum of American Jewish History, which opened last year. “God forbid you create something mediocre and put it in Washington,” said Michael Berenbaum, who oversaw the creation of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum two decades ago and is now a professor of Jewish studies at American Jewish University in Los Angeles. “You either have to do something that is grand and world-class in terms of size, scope, and mandate, or you have to create a boutique museum, a small gem.”

The idea man behind the museum proposal is Ori Soltes, a lecturer in theology and fine arts at Georgetown University, who has been fighting for an independent Jewish museum in the capital since the late 1990s, when he was director of the small Judaica museum held by B’nai B’rith, a no-longer-displayed collection of donations made over the years by the organization’s patrons and items held in trust for other foundations. Soltes, who has a wild corona of salt-and-pepper curls and the didactic energy of a children’s show host, talks excitedly about multimedia or holographic installations that would allow visitors to bat against Sandy Koufax, and the museum project’s Web site mentions a similar idea for re-enacting chess matches played by Bobby Fischer—never mind the grandmaster’s later paranoid fantasies of being pursued by world Jewry. The list of proposed curatorial departments runs the gamut from art and literature to economics, media, and the law.

When we met earlier this month at a coffee shop in Georgetown, Soltes told me he also envisions space devoted to exhibits digitally recreating lost synagogues and temporary shows bolstered with public programs exploring the interplay between Jewish communities and the cultures into which they settled around the world, from Morocco or Poland or China to the United States. “We want to explore how the Jewish people have been involved in the societies where they’ve lived, which is everywhere,” Soltes said. “The job of the museum is to keep asking the question without an answer—what’s Jewish?”

Soltes cheerfully acknowledges that he and Kaplan don’t have much to start with by way of a permanent collection. Aside from the music memorabilia, announced commitments include an array of miniature menorahs collected by Kaplan, plus paintings by Jewish artists collected by Baron Oscar Ghez, the founder of Geneva’s Petit Palais Museum. But Soltes seems undaunted. “There is a lot of stuff out there,” Soltes told me. “People call me all the time saying they have stuff to give.”

There is an obvious prize: the B’nai B’rith’s now-homeless collection. In the 1990s, the Klutznick National Jewish Museum occupied the second floor of the B’nai B’rith’s former headquarters near Dupont Circle. It has not been formally displayed since B’nai B’rith sold that building, in 2002, and moved to smaller offices. But even before that, Soltes, who was director from 1991 until 1998, had ideas about the Klutznick collection’s potential as an independent attraction. He worked to raise the museum’s profile both in Washington and among Jewish institutions, joining museum associations and building an independent board to oversee dedicated fundraising efforts under the larger B’nai B’rith umbrella. One of those board members was Kaplan, a member of Washington’s Explorers’ Club who told me that, aside from representing Israel on trade matters in Washington, he’d had very little involvement in organized Jewish life prior to signing on with Soltes but had found himself captivated by a show at the Klutznick exploring Jewish influence on Moroccan culture. According to Soltes, he and Kaplan made repeated overtures to executives at B’nai B’rith in hopes of partnering on an independent museum, but the idea never gained traction. Gwen Zuares, chair of B’nai B’rith’s Center for Jewish Culture, said in an interview that the organization is actively pursuing discussions with potential partners for the Klutznick, but she declined to disclose details.

In any case, Kaplan says, his vision for what a Jewish museum in Washington could be has always been more expansive than simply repackaging the existing B’nai B’rith collection. “I’ve always felt from the beginning that the B’nai B’rith museum was an interesting undertaking, but it didn’t have the Weltanschauung, as the Germans would say, to complement the Holocaust museum,” he said in our phone conversation. “The Holocaust having a major presence in Washington only shows one side of the coin, the tragic side of Jewish history, and I thought the other side of the coin, the uplifting side of Jews’ contributions to world civilization, deserved equal footing.”

When the federal government moved early in the Bush Administration to redevelop the Old Post Office, Kaplan recognized the potential for a golden museum location in the courtyard. “I could not justify gobbling the entirety of the project, but I could see gobbling the site of the annex,” Kaplan told me. He struck up a partnership with Norman Groh, a Virginia-based hotel developer best known for building a $1,400-a-night suite at a Holiday Inn outside Washington in 1972. Groh brought Hyatt into the partnership. (Hyatt referred questions about the proposal to Groh, whom they described as its sponsor; Groh, when reached by telephone, declined to comment until after the government announces the winner of the bid.)

In 2003, Kaplan incorporated the nonprofit for the museum, then known as the National Museum of Jewish Heritage. Along with Kaplan and Soltes, the board included Janice Blumberg, who had been active in supporting the Klutznick at B’nai B’rith; Claude Ghez, son of the Swiss collector Baron Oscar Ghez; and Frank Abramoff, Jack Abramoff’s father, who had offered to help fundraise in California, where he lived. Jack Abramoff had tried to secure the Old Post Office site for one of his Native American tribal clients. That fact subsequently became the centerpiece of the federal government’s case against one of Abramoff’s associates, David Safavian, who was involved with the initial stages of the Old Post Office bid process as chief of staff of the Government Services Administration in the first Bush Administration. Once the Native American project foundered, Kaplan said, Jack Abramoff encouraged him to talk to his father about the museum. “He did mention to me that his father loved the idea of a Jewish museum,” Kaplan told me in our phone conversation. The former lobbyist was never involved in the Jewish museum project. “I wanted to be supportive, but it was a little far afield for me,” Jack Abramoff told me in a phone interview earlier this week. “I was never involved.”

The government solicited interest in the Old Post Office complex in 2005, but it never moved to a formal bid process, leaving the project in limbo. The next year, Claude Ghez and Frank Abramoff, who had been vice-president of the museum nonprofit’s board, both stepped down as directors, and the project’s funding dwindled to less than $6,000, according to tax records. Nevertheless, Kaplan and Soltes, by then emotionally invested in the Pennsylvania Avenue location, didn’t look elsewhere for space, even in the midst of the of the subsequent real-estate collapse. “We were waiting for Godot,” Soltes told me. “We felt that if we left this project, we’d be starting from scratch.”

The Old Post Office languished until earlier this year, when the District of Columbia’s delegate, Democrat Eleanor Holmes Norton, pushed the General Services Administration to prioritize its redevelopment in response to President Barack Obama’s request that the government privatize $8 billion in federal real-estate holdings by the end of 2012. Now there is nothing to do but wait. “I don’t have any intention of pursuing this further,” Kaplan told me. “I am going to be 78 years old and I don’t have another 12 years to devote to the museum’s creation.”

Allison Hoffman is a senior editor at Tablet Magazine. Her Twitter feed is @allisont_dc.

Allison Hoffman is a senior editor at Tablet Magazine. Her Twitter feed is @allisont_dc.