“Times change and particulars change, but human nature never changes,” says Elissa Schein, deputy director of the Museum of Jewish Heritage. “We have to heighten our sensitivity and learn how to develop what I refer to as the ‘heroic muscle,’ to stand up to that inclination of ‘I don’t like that because I don’t understand that.’”
And that’s why educating youth is a core mission of the museum, explains Schein, and why programming for schoolkids from all over the city is a major focus. “We teach them the responsibility of being an active citizen, of speaking up when they see that someone is being picked on or bullied or being targeted, and why everyone’s rights are of concern. And about the nature of propaganda and how ideologies grow.”
The museum is also a major international cultural destination, featuring cultural events, including concerts and theater. Schein was director of public programs at the museum for nine years, during which time she opened an acclaimed theater and a new wing. She then went on to work for years as the national programming director at the U.S. Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. Two years ago she returned to become deputy director of the Museum of Jewish Heritage.
“Museums function now in a different way than they have in the past,” Schein says. “They’re not the rarified places with masterpieces, where one visits and stays very quiet. We’re a museum about stories, about people, about events that happened in people’s lives. These are the stories that are still happening, unfortunately, in the world today — refugee populations, displaced people, people who are stateless.”
Pointing out the rare and beautiful location facing the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, bookended with the Freedom Tower, she says. “I think that we are a very special place of memory and also of contemporary history and contemporary relevance. We really can’t be a history museum alone, especially when we are teaching 15- and 16-year-olds. We have to meet them with the things that they are already thinking about, what they already care about.”
Among the programs Schein is proud of is a six-week summer apprenticeship. Students from all over New York City work at the museum, rotating through all the departments. They work with staff in the curatorial department, the executive area, fundraising, communications, accounting and education. Some have gone on to be hired by the museum years later, after graduating from college.
“The students are from diverse backgrounds, from Cambodia, Pakistan, Poland and from all neighborhoods, and these are wonderful young people who are representative of the fabulous diversity of the public school system in New York,” Schein says.
There is a new exhibition that examines the roots of anti-Semitism, which may be one of the oldest hatreds targeting an ethnic minority, Schein says. Heading up that exhibition initiative is Abe Foxman, former head of the Anti-Defamation League.
The museum will reach its 20th anniversary in another year and a half, and Schein says it’s embarking on a new phase. Schein and her colleagues will take a look at core exhibitions and re-envisioning and integrating more technology and interactive tools to engage younger audiences.
“Even museums have life cycles,” she says.