Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Buildings of Brooklyn: Crown Heights 


At ground level on Kingston Ave., directly to the right of the express 3 train stop, you can't miss it.

Erected across 50,000 square feet on the corner of Eastern Parkway and Kingston Ave., the Jewish Children's Museum serves as a major institution for the Jewish community and children of all faiths and backgrounds in Crown Heights, Brooklyn.

According to its website, the museum aims to bring more families to Crown Heights and serve children more extensively.

Around lunchtime, the area is indeed bustling with families – mostly mothers and their daughters and sons – some passing by the Jewish Children's Museum and others stopping a second to take in the massive museum. After checking my surroundings, which included Chabad-Lubavitch Hasidic World Headquarters, Jewish shops and restaurants, and a tree-lined sidewalk running between two sides of Eastern Parkway, I made a short walk across the parkway and approached a towering statue of a dreidel, sitting a few feet away from the museum's entrance. Sitting on the base of the statute, a homeless woman with swollen calves, ankles, and feet, asked for money from those passing by her. Some stopped. Others paid her little, if any, attention and continued to their destination.

After snapping a few photos and walking to the front gate, with its mission statement ("A Celebration of Jewish Life – its History Culture and Traditions") in plain sight, one parent nearby promised her kid they would return later that same day after learning the price of admission per visitor ($13). On this day, traffic entering the historic museum was light – likely a result of rainfall and cloudy skies – but the attraction has welcomed well over 500,000 visitors from all backgrounds since opening in 2004, according to the museum's website.

"Our biggest crowds come over the weekends, when kids are home from school and parents are off from work," the museum's Marketing and Program Director Chaya Serebryanski, wrote in an email, before highlighting the venue's biggest event, best described as a four-day voyage of Jewish history. "The Jewish Children's Expo turns out our biggest crowd, with attendance continuing to grow every year," Serebryanski wrote.

I took time to speak with people passing by the JCM, the same ones who had overlooked the homeless woman sitting by the street, and it was no surprise that most Jewish visitors cherished the building's commitment to teach and keep Jewish history alive, while those who were not visitors admitted to knowing little about the museum. Jon Ravitz, 37, of Crown Heights, said he took his son to the museum as an introduction to his heritage when he was "five or six, when he was old enough to sort of understand."

"I thought it was important to establish a sense of self in my child early on, and the museum made it easy to understand where he came from and history for kids his age," Ravitz said. "I didn't expect him to totally grasp everything, but it's a start, and I'm sure we will be back."

Carson Lewis, 27, said he has lived a few strides down from the JCM for three years and never thought to step foot inside, with other interests occupying most of his time in New York.

"Well, I'm not a kid anymore and just don't have interest [in going]," Lewis said. "But hey, it's a nice building. Just not for me."

At first glance, one might predict the JCM (valued at $35 million) is a brand new building – bordered by condos on one side and the museum's gift store and a Jewish coffee shop on the other – but it's over 12 years old, having opened in 2004, according to the museum's website. Designed by Gwathmey, Siegel & Associates Architects LLC, the seven-story museum is dedicated to the memory of Ari Halberstam, a yeshiva student who was shot in the head by a Lebanese terrorist on the Brooklyn Bridge while riding home in a van with 14 other Chabad-Lubavitch Orthodox Jewish students on March 1, 1994. 

Halberstam was one of four students shot, and five days later, he was the only one who died. In memory, a two-story mural hangs outside the building for all to see.

Over two decades after the murder, the building serves as an institution for children and parents to learn about Jewish history and heritage in a "stimulating interactive environment," according to the website. It features hands-on exhibits on Jewish holidays, biblical history, the land of Israel, contemporary Jewish Life and more. Recently, the museum earned the Brooklyn Building Award in the Arts and Culture category.

Their efforts appear to have an impact on its visitors and supporters, including exhibition writer and Museum consultant Paul Rosenthal.

"There's a sense of real joy to the museum exploring the story of the Jewish people across time, space and subcultures, the museum scratches beneath the surface of superficial differences," Rosenthal told the museum. "It's very much a living museum about a thriving community of people and how it continues to evolve."

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