Now’s the Perfect Time to Virtually Tour These Jewish Museums

You can support Jewish museums from Montréal to Sydney from the comfort of your own home.

As a college student, back when we could actually be on campus, my life mostly revolved around libraries, lecture halls, dorm rooms, and the occasional student bar. Yet, several minutes from my campus in Quebec, there is another destination that has become a second home to me these past two years: The Museum of Jewish Montréal.

In the heart of Montréal’s Old Jewish Quarter, The Museum of Jewish Montreal offers walking tours and live klezmer concerts throughout the year. During fall semester exams, I took breaks from my cue cards and essay outlines to visit the museum’s Hanukkah market. There, I sampled crafts made by independent artisans and bought Leonard Cohen poetry books for my family.

Later, during the peak of Canadian winter, when the weather was so cold that simply leaving one’s apartment required scarves and strategic planning, the museum became a refuge for cozy weekend brunches. I remember chatting about politics with my friends over babka French toast and coffee, all offered from the small café within the museum. Then, we would wander to the back of the building to gaze at whatever art was on display: a nice way to procrastinate schlepping back to the library to study for midterms.

Jewish museums around the world provide young and older Jews alike with a sense of shared history and community. This is why I was devastated to learn about the closure of the Museum of Jewish Montréal’s St. Laurent storefront in late May. While they search for a new physical location, I’m left mourning the fact that this pandemic has laid claim to another Montréal space — and part of my unfolding Jewish identity — I valued dearly.

COVID-19 has dealt a harsh economic blow to Jewish museums across the world, including New York City’s Tenement Museum, which recently laid off 76 employees, including all of its part-time educators. While the prospect of future bagel boards and Hanukkah markets lies in limbo, there are many other ways to support some epic Jewish institutions from home as they adjust to new restrictions. Jewish museums from across the globe are now offering virtual exhibits and tours, allowing you to “visit” even more places you might not have been able to before. While Google Chrome will never emulate the sensation of, say, a live concert, these virtual offerings are an awesome way to support the preservation of Jewish history and culture as we hunker down at home together.

The Museum of Jewish Montreal

Montréal, Quebec

The Museum of Jewish Montréal offers a comprehensive map of Jewish institutions across the Island of Montréal, spanning everywhere from legendary smoked meats restaurant Schwartz’s Deli to lesser-known cultural relics, such as the Jewish Immigrant Aid Society. One can toggle through the city’s rich Jewish history and filter both by decade in which each space was active and the type of service — such as political, cultural, or religious — each institution offered.

The museum also offers guided virtual “tours” in which the museum curators thread several Jewish spots on a map to create a route to walk through, either online or in person on your own. I have spent hours poring through the website’s display of archives and primary sources. Did you know that in 1913, almost 500 Jewish students in a Montréal school organized a strike against their sixth grade teacher for making anti-Semitic remarks? It’s like real-life, Québécois Matilda!

How Else To Support: The Museum of Jewish Montréal runs an ongoing donations page here. Even more, when the physical space reopens, students and young adults in Quebec can become members of the museum for competitive prices, with perks such as discounts on walking tours and at the museum’s café. If you can, I highly recommend the gefilte fish tacos. (You heard that right. Gefilte. Fish. Tacos.)

Tenement Museum

Manhattan, New York

Even more than kosher dill pickles and Meg Ryan impressions at Katz’s Deli, a trip to Manhattan’s Lower East Side would be incomplete without a visit to the Tenement Museum. The 97 Orchard Street location offers detailed reconstructions of the cramped apartments and hallways that late 19th century immigrants and refugees to New York called home. While these tenements were by no means exclusively Jewish — in fact, early tenement inhabitants were mostly German migrants — these rooms spotlight the rocky road to assimilation and social mobility that many immigrants took, Jews included.

Take the digital exhibit, “The Census: Reading Between the Lines,” which draws upon a vast archive of censuses to chronicle who passed through the Orchard Street doors when. The online exhibit delves into the wave of Jewish migrants who fled from the Russian Empire in the early 1900s, shifting the ethnic makeup of the Lower East Side. It also explores the family dynamics of these homes, which were usually spearheaded by women (because duh!) and employed teenagers to work full-time.

Even more timely in the age of COVID-19, the exhibit “Beyond Statistics: Living in a Pandemic” tracks the lives of three tenement residents who lived with, and eventually succumbed to, various contagious diseases. This virtual exhibit speaks to the way marginalized communities were often most vulnerable to ailments like cholera or HIV/AIDs: a theme that unfortunately echoes in this present-day pandemic.

How Else To Support: The Tenement Museum has a gorgeous online gift shop that sells books, jewelry, and even a Tenement Fire Escape themed Christmas tree ornament (because why not?). If you’d like to make a more direct donation to help laid-off Tenement Museum employees, you can donate here.

The Holocaust History Museum: Yad Vashem

Jerusalem, Israel 

Anyone who has visited the Yad Vashem Holocaust History Museum in Jerusalem would jump at the first chance to tell you about it. That’s because this museum, located next to Mt. Herzl in Jerusalem, is not only powerful and well-curated, but is an architectural wonder. After traversing through several winding rooms retelling the tragedies of the Shoah through artifacts, personal photos, and survivors’ accounts, the final room is an extended hallway leading above ground to the mountainside. This affords the museum-goer with a breathtaking view of a valley in Jerusalem below: enough to send shivers down anyone’s spine.

While the museum’s world-renowned Hall of Names may not be accessible due to COVID-19 closures, Yad Vashem offers an equally in-depth database of Holocaust victims’ names online. These records include the victims’ first names, last names, places of residence, and, if it is recorded, their fates. Other virtual offerings include The Online Photo Archive, which provides detailed photos of Jewish life in Europe before, during, and after the Holocaust, as well as the Righteous Among The Nations Database, which pays tribute to gentiles during the Holocaust who helped rescue Jewish victims.

How Else To Support: Yad Vashem’s doors may be closed for now, but a donations page online ensures this memorial of one of the darkest chapters in Jewish history remains standing for generations to come.

Jewish Historical Museum

Amsterdam, Netherlands

The Jewish Historical Museum speaks to the inner synagogue geek in all of us. That’s because this Amsterdam must-see is located inside four historic Ashkenazi synagogues that have been redesigned into a museum. Traverse the interior of these synagogues — both architecturally traditional and modern alike — and read about the tumultuous history of Jewish life in Amsterdam from the 1600s all the way up to the present-day. The museum even offers film screenings to satisfy your inner movie geek. There’s no getting bored in this shul!

Supporting from home, I high-key recommend checking out the online exhibit: Charlotte Saloman Leben Oder Theater. Charlotte Saloman was a prodigious visual artist who grew up in Berlin during the 1930s. As Nazism took root in Germany, she fled to France and spent the next few years meticulously painting her life story, producing nearly 800 watercolors. Salomon’s life was tragically cut short after being arrested and murdered at Auschwitz in 1943. In this virtual exhibit, however, her work lives on.

On the museum’s website, one can browse through the talented Jewish artist’s entire oeuvre. Her watercolors are vibrant, imaginative, and often portray real-life events from her own childhood. Likewise, Salomon was also an extremely talented lyricist. Check out this page of lyrics she penned. Though, be warned: They’re in German, so you might need to whip out an online dictionary for this one.

How Else To Support: The Jewish Historical Museum has a donations page online, both for small-scale individual donations as well as larger bequests for those who have the means. 

The Sephardic Museum

Toledo, Spain 

Toledo was the last stronghold of the Moorish empire in Spain, and it has a rich Jewish Quarter that is mostly well-preserved. The Sephardic Museum in offers a detailed history of the Jews in Spain, from relative tolerance under the Muslim Empire, to expulsion and persecution during the Inquisition, to present-day return.

If you want to check out some gorgeous Moorish architecture from the comfort of your own bedroom (and let’s be real here, who doesn’t?), the website offers a page called “The Museum From Home.” This virtual tour takes one through the museum’s various rooms and gardens, and it includes detailed descriptions of artifacts across Jewish life. Clicking through the museum myself, I immediately became overwhelmed with a desire to travel to Spain and learn more about Sephardic Jewish history while sipping sangria on a patio.

How Else To Support: The Sephardic Museum offers a variety of internship opportunities and sponsorship programs. To ensure that Sephardic history continues being told, consider making a donation here.

Jewish Museum of Sydney

Sydney, Australia

If you’re going online, might as well go down under, too! Did you know that Australia is the home to over 100,000 Jewish people? I guess it’s time to smear some vegemite on a slice of challah and learn more! (Trust me. It’s an acquired taste.) The Jewish Museum of Sydney conveys all there is to know about Jewish life and education in Australia, with an emphasis on Holocaust education and survivor testimonies. It also champions Jewish values of social justice and human rights in all of its programming.

During the pandemic, the museum is offering a wide variety of online “webinars” throughout July and August. These exhibits explore a variety of themes relevant to contemporary Jewish life, from Holocaust remembrance to in-depth histories on the centuries-old relationship between Jews and Muslims.

How Else To Support: Alongside donations, consider purchasing one of the museum’s many membership plans! A membership to The Jewish Museum of Sydney affords one access to an even wider array of informative webinars and discussions, as well as discounts to the museum’s store. A membership to this museum helps keep innovative Jewish programming alive in Oceania. Pretty ace if you ask me!

Jewish Museum London

London, England

Finally, our virtual tour takes us to the United Kingdom, where the Jewish Museum London tells the story of Jews across Britain. Originally formed in 1932 as a way to preserve the historic Jewish East End, the Jewish Museum merged with The London Museum of Jewish Life and the Jewish Military Museum in recent years to tell a comprehensive story about the contributions made by Jews in Britain.

Among the museum’s many online offerings during the pandemic, I have been fascinated most by the virtual exhibit Jewish Britain: A History in 50 Objects. This online exhibition uses  primary artifacts to tell the illustrious history of Jews in Britain. From Yiddish typewriters to circumcision kits (ouch!), this exhibit combines striking images and historical context to create an engaging portrait of Jewish life in England.

How Else To Support: Make a donation here. Or, become a Friend of the museum, which gives you perks like free access to the museum and discounts at the gift shop.

Header image design by Grace Yagel. Original illustration by Svetlana Shamshurina/Getty images.

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