Museum to be the Smithsonian of the Jewish people

NEW YORK — Rosalind Devon, wearing a hard hat, stood shivering amid exposed beams and "Caution" signs. She was one of almost 150 people invited to view the West 16th Street construction site of the Center for Jewish History.

Devon, a supporter of several Jewish organizations and an Upper East Side resident, had never heard of the Leo Baeck Institute on East 73rd Street. Nor had she heard of the American Jewish Historical Society in Waltham, Mass.

But when those two organizations join YIVO Institute for Jewish Research and the Yeshiva University Museum on 16th Street by the beginning of 1999 to form the center, they are likely to draw many more visitors.

"I believe in this project," Devon said of the $50 million effort. "What's so thrilling is the consolidation."

"It will be the Library of Congress and the Smithsonian Institution of the Jewish people," said Bruce Slovin, chairman of YIVO and the Center.

Combined holdings of all four institutions add up to 100 million artifacts, books, letters, periodicals, artworks — the largest archives outside of Israel.

The Yeshiva University Museum's permanent collection includes an 1818 letter about the importance of religious freedom written by Thomas Jefferson.

The Baeck Institute, the archive of German-speaking Jewry, owns letters from Freud and Einstein.

Founded in 1925 in Vilna, Lithuania, with a branch in New York, YIVO moved to West 57th Street from its Fifth Avenue mansion, where its 350,000 books and 22 million documents chronicling life in Eastern European Jewish communities before the Holocaust were crammed into dank basements.

The American Jewish Historical Society, known for its portraits of revolutionary heroes, may soon become an archive of a more recent cultural Jewish phenomenon: the Catskills resorts.

The society was founded in New York in 1892, but moved in 1968 to a building next to Brandeis University near Boston. "Its pending move back to New York is really a return to its roots," said Michael Feldberg, the society's director.

But how do three secular institutions devoted to Jewish culture and history join with one that's connected to a university with Orthodox underpinnings, during a fractious era when the term "Jewish community" seems obsolete?

Joyce Kitey, senior vice president of the center, put a more practical spin on the paradox. She asked supporters, prospective donors and institute leaders at the brunch: "How did four disparate groups find five adjacent buildings in a tight real estate market, in a neighborhood with seven colleges?"

Leave it to the Jewish community. The institutions will be grouped in a reconstructed four-story landmark building on 16th Street between Fifth and Sixth avenues and an adjacent 12-story structure on 17th Street, covering 120,000 square feet.

The building's design will enable the institutions to cooperate, as well as operate independently. The neo-Georgian facade opens on a lobby, where each institution will be identified, leading to a two-story atrium and a gallery to be used exclusively by the Yeshiva Museum and a 250-seat auditorium.

Exhibit space for the three research institutes and a small sculpture garden occupy the second floor of the atrium. A two-level "reading room" rises above the atrium. There will also be a small nondenominational shul.