Misha Galperin started as a consultant for the Weitzman National Museum of American Jewish History. Then he got promoted to interim CEO and ultimately CEO.
His task? Guide the museum through bankruptcy. Then COVID happened and forced the closure of the museum’s galleries.
The longtime Jewish community professional, who once led the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, said he felt a responsibility to stay on to lead the museum through a difficult period.
Today, the Weitzman is secure in its Old City home thanks to an eight-figure gift from shoe designer Stuart Weitzman. It also has no debt and an eight-figure endowment from $60 million in fundraising, $4.2 million in revenue and $2.3 million in government grants under Galperin, according to museum officials.
Galperin announced that he is stepping down as president and CEO in a Nov. 13 letter to the museum community. He will likely step away in 2024 once the Weitzman finds a new chief executive.
“Today’s Weitzman Museum is a vibrant, strong and growing national educational institution, the only one in the country telling the entire story of the Jewish people’s journeys to and throughout America,” he wrote.
Despite the challenges he faced in 2020, Galperin was still “really excited about what the place could become,” he said.
“I thought the museum had a unique place in pursuing education about American Jewry as an antidote to antisemitism,” he added.
Galperin had to get donors on board. Mitchell Morgan, a real estate investor, bought the building and loaned it back to the museum for $1,000 a month. Other donors forgave $13 million in loans. Then Weitzman’s gift allowed the institution to buy back the building.
Galperin pitched them on three pillars that would define the museum’s future. First, it would remake its core exhibit from chronological American Jewish history to different themes within that history. That would make it more family- and child-friendly, according to the CEO.
Second, the museum would create a permanent space for special exhibitions. These could apply to current events and attract new visitors. And third, Galperin and his team would build a Center for Jewish Life that would become “a platform for national thought leadership.”
“Altogether, the notion was that the museum would be this bulwark against antisemitism that is not Holocaust education,” Galperin said. “We felt we needed to double down on providing education to all Americans of who the Jewish people are, what Jewish contributions have been to western civilization and to America in particular.”
The new core exhibit is being planned. The space for special exhibitions is not yet built. And the “platform for national thought leadership” is only really one event old: the Priorities Conference on Oct. 22, which brought together rabbis, writers and Jewish organizational leaders.
But it was a convincing enough vision to get donors to help the museum take the first step: getting out of debt. Galperin emphasized this point to the board of trustees from the beginning, according to Sharon Tobin Kestenbaum, the board chair.
“We had to get rid of that burden and move forward without it. That helped set a vision,” she said.
Galperin and his team also introduced online exhibits and programs that reached more than 4 million people, according to the museum. They helped increase exposure to Jewish American Heritage Month events in May to more than 3 billion impressions. They also brought Philadelphia Jewish Film and Media in-house to present its yearly film festivals.
“In some ways, it may have been the most challenging assignment of my career,” the CEO said. “And, therefore, the most satisfying.”
To take his vision forward though, the museum needs a full-time CEO based in Philadelphia, according to Galperin, who still lives in Brooklyn.
Antisemitism has increased since the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israel. There were more than 100 complaints of antisemitic incidents in the Philadelphia area in the month after the attack, according to the Anti-Defamation League.
“It’s important now when there’s such an explosion of antisemitism around the world,” Galperin said. “We’ve gotten to a place where we can really make a difference.”
The CEO still runs his ZANDAFI consulting firm, and he will now have more time to devote to those clients. But he is going to help the Weitzman find his successor.
“I think he’s good on strategy,” Tobin Kestenbaum said. “He got us to a stronger point from which we can go forward.”