Museum of tolerance in Sacramento inching forward

The board of directors for the yet-to-be-built California Unity Center, which is planned for Sacramento, met for the first time last Friday.

Based on the Simon Weisenthal Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles, the center is envisioned as a place for research and learning in the state capital. Its aim: to prevent future acts of hate violence by strengthening bonds of understanding between all the diverse peoples of the state.

"I have a tremendous passion for this," said Assemblyman Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, who chairs the 29-member Capitol Unity Council.

The museum was the brainchild of Rabbi Brad Bloom, spiritual leader of Congregation B'nai Israel, one of three synagogues hit by arson last June.

Bloom had shared his vision for the museum at a community rally two days after flames engulfed B'nai Israel's library and ravaged Kenesset Israel Torah Center in Sacramento and Congregation Beth Jacob in nearby Carmichael.

He now sits on the council along with State Sen. Deborah Ortiz, philanthropist Morton Friedman, and representatives of schools, the gay and lesbian community and numerous ethnic groups.

"I've felt some birth pains, but it really doesn't belong to me anymore," Bloom said by phone Tuesday. "I'm just watching it unfold, and I like what I see."

The city has had its share of unrest. An abortion clinic was firebombed in July. Two men attempted to blow up a propane yard, allegedly to kick off a millennial revolution. A constellation of hate groups dots the outer reaches of the capitol city.

But the museum's backers say the town has shown strength, solidarity — and a deep capacity for growth and renewal.

State Librarian Kevin Starr has written a vision statement for what will be "a very complex project."

The board will be juggling the development of a multi-media program, a museum, a research institute, and the Anti-Defamation League's "World of Difference" educational program.

"It's going to be a very long haul," Bloom said. "Ultimately, we will tell two stories: the story of multi-culturalism in California, and the story of a California that has not lived up to its promise in terms of bigotry and prejudice. Our kids will be able to learn lessons for the future."

Police statistics indicate the region has long been troubled by hate crime. A report on anti-gay and anti-lesbian violence revealed a higher rate of violent attacks in Sacramento than the statewide average.

Two years ago, a Baptist church was hit by arsonists. And a year before the synagogue fires, arson gutted two classrooms and damaged others in the area's only Jewish day school.

"There have been a number of incidents that have occurred up here against the Jewish community," said Jonathan Bernstein, director of the ADL Central Pacific Region.

The National Alliance has an active chapter in Sacramento, as does the World Church of the Creator and several other groups with links to violent attacks.

Benjamin Matthew Williams and James Tyler Williams, in custody for the murder of a Redding-area gay couple, have been linked to the arsons. Benjamin Williams, 31, has claimed responsibility for the conflagrations.

Some had argued in the weeks following the arsons that a mandatory school course for students and teachers would do more to dispel prejudice and violence than an expensive edifice.

Beryl Michaels, executive director of the Jewish Federation of the Greater Sacramento Region, ruminated that the answer may be "some kind of institute without walls" that could make available writings, studies and lessons.

"Some center or physical presence rooted in the community is important to remind people that there's a message in this that rises above curriculum or textbooks, that we have to learn to live together," said Dave Gordon, who sits on the Unity Center Council board and is superintendent of the Elk Grove Unified School District.

But the price tag to build the Weisenthal Center was more than $50 million many years ago. And the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., topped $150 million.

The Nehemiah Progressive Housing Development Corp. kicked in $10,000 in start-up funds at the Sacramento community rally. And Davis promised state aid, much like the $5 million in state aid that was made available for the Wiesenthal Center's Museum of Tolerance, which opened in 1993.

The City of Sacramento has appropriated $100,000 for the Unity Center, and Steinberg sponsored an Assembly bill that will make available $500,000 in matching funds.

Rebecca Rosen Lum

Rebecca Rosen Lum is a freelance writer.