Historical Society exec looks to past, future
by Aaron Leibel
Laura Cohen Apelbaum feels lucky that "her avocation has become her vocation."
"I was one of those kids who always liked to read biographies, to go to Williamsburg," says the executive director of the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington and the Lillian and Albert Small Museum, who is marking the halfway point in her tenure as chair of the Council of American Jewish Museums. "I also always had a particular interest in how communities are created."
For her, the historical society also helps build those communities.
"I see working at the historical society as an opportunity to act as a cohesive force in the Jewish community by dealing with all sections of that community -- Orthodox, Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, the federation, the unaffiliated," she says.
"It also provides me with the chance to help build community between Jews and non-Jews of the area."
Apelbaum has very deep roots in that Washington Jewish community, stretching back to 1918 when her great-grandfather settled here. She was born in Baltimore's Sinai Hospital in 1959 -- her mother preferred being treated by a physician in Charm City -- but in three days Apelbaum's mother had brought her back home to Chevy Chase.
She grew up in an observant family and belonged to Adas Israel Congregation. The District synagogue has played a big role in her life. "I was named, became bat mitzvah, confirmed, married and had my children named there," she says. Her paternal grandparents also were married at the shul, and her son goes to religious school there.
Apelbaum, who lives in Chevy Chase, is a member of both Adas and Washington Hebrew Congregation.
After graduating from Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School, Apelbaum studied history at Duke University and law at George Washington University. In addition, she has a master's degree in taxation (tax law) from Georgetown University.
She worked as an attorney before coming to the JHSGW eight years ago.
Putting on her other hat as chair of the CAJM, Apelbaum revisits the past year in which the organization has been working with the National Foundation of Jewish Culture on developing a strategic plan.
She also points to a visitor's survey at six of the 80 member museums, the results of which were presented at the CAJM conference last month in Philadelphia. The survey found that people enjoy coming to Jewish museums because they enjoy the personalized history they encounter there. But the survey also concluded that museums need to do a better job attracting families and children, a subject she believes will be taken up at next year's conference.
There were international visitors at the conference -- the directors of the Jewish museums of Australia, Greece, Franconia (in Germany) and Belgium. Attending the conference helped the visitors -- especially the head of the Jewish museum in Melbourne, the only one on the Australian continent -- to break their sense of isolation. And their presence helped CAJM members by providing a different perspective on problems that are common to most Jewish museums.
The state of American Jewish museums is mixed, Apelbaum notes. "Most museums are feeling a financial strain," she says. "But there are huge growth spurts in some places, and museums are being built or renovated."
In that latter category, she points to the recent announcement of a $100 million project to build a new National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia; in Cleveland, there is a plan to build a new $10 million Jewish museum; a museum in New York's Battery -- the Museum of Jewish Heritage -- is in the middle of a $60 million addition; and Skirball Museum in Los Angeles also is undergoing a major addition.
As for JHSGW, it hopes to receive space in the old Adas Israel Synagogue on 6th and I Streets, which was recently purchased by Abe Pollin, Douglas Jemal and Shelton Zuckerman, for renovation into a Jewish center, synagogue and museum. Talks on the subject continue, she says.
This story was published in the WashingtonJewishWeek
on: Thursday, February 13, 2003