Little-known Museum Making Name for Itself

Judaica showcase at Temple Judea Museum | Photo by Jon Marks

That mysterious voice from Field of Dreams that tells Ray Kinsella, “If you build it they will come,” forgot to mention the disclaimer “if they know about it.”

That’s what drives Rita Poley to let everyone in on a longtime secret to much of the local Jewish community. She wants them to know that the Temple Judea Museum at Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel (KI) in Elkins Park is worth coming to see.

“I always say if they gave a war and no one came it would be great, but if you give an art exhibition and no one comes it’s not so great,” said Poley, director and curator of the museum since 1999. “We run three different exhibitions at the same time, and we change exhibits three times a year.

“We have artwork throughout the building and over 4,000 pieces of Judaica in our permanent collection. Yet it seemed nobody knew we existed.”

It’s actually existed since 1984, two years after Temple Judea near Olney closed and merged with KI. Not only did its membership follow, but so did its large collection of historical Judaica.

“I know the whole congregation of Temple Judea was deeply committed to the material culture of our religion,” said Poley, who has a background as an artist, specializing in contemporary art. “They had collected some fabulous objects, and KI had a similar commitment. So it was really a good marriage between the two synagogues, and the money from the sale of the Temple Judea building built the museum space.”

Back then, Judy Maslin, wife of KI Rabbi Emeritus Simeon Maslin, ran the museum.

“It had showcases in the lobby but wasn’t really a fully formed museum,” she said. “When it started, it was simply the combination of the two collections. Organizing it, setting it up and making it into a real museum takes a lot of time. It has really evolved and expanded well beyond what my vision was. Rita has brought a new dimension to it.”

Rita Poley in the Arts Alive Gallery | Photo by Jon Marks

One thing Poley started doing was encouraging people to give her anything they didn’t want that had a Jewish connection. She’d then sift through those unwanted items to find something of value.

Through the years, it’s led to a number of items going into the collection.

“There’s a lot of ephemera, which have become almost the cornerstone of the collection,” Poley said. “Ephemera refers to anything normally thrown out. Anything transient. Therefore, they become the rarest form of objects because everybody throws them out and nobody saves them. The direction of the collection has changed, and its activities have expanded.”

That expansion takes several forms and includes a number of items tucked away for safekeeping. Among them are plates and Kiddush cups, newspapers referring to the Nazi denial of the Holocaust, a Haggadah used by the military, index cards listing of all the yahrzeits from a now-defunct congregation in Northeast Philadelphia, and much more.

“There wasn’t one bit of music before five to six years ago,” she added. “Now we have over 1,000 recordings, including Russian labor songs and World War I sheet music. We have a collection of archaeological objects from Israel that go back a couple of thousand years. But when it comes to our exhibitions, our most popular are where people can see themselves reflected through stories that link them to the lives of people in the community.”

They’ve also been drawn to a couple of museum initiatives Poley considers rare, if not unique.

“I don’t believe that there are many groups around like our Temple Judea Museum Artists Collaborative,” she said. “They’re an active group of about 20 professional artists, many of them teachers, who exhibit here. Their work is a part of our permanent collection. They use their art in the service of their religion, which is woven into their lives.”

But those participating in the Arts Alive Gallery aren’t simply collaborating with the museum. They’re passing their skills and knowledge onto the next generation.

“We’ve started what I believe might be the only professionally run art gallery in a preschool anywhere,” Poley said. “The Arts Alive Gallery is for preschool children. They work with each guest artist, who tells them about what they do and how they do it. Then a month later they come back and do a project with the kids. We’re only in our second year, but it already seems to have helped the preschool grow because they had to give us [a] new space.”

Besides that, the museum exemplifies what KI wants to be.

“There are seven banners hanging in the lobby that represent our core values as a congregation,” KI Executive Director Brian D. Rissinger said. “One of the core key values is an emphasis on arts and culture. That banner is purposely hanging right outside the museum entrance. There are important life lessons for us to learn from arts and culture, and the museum really provides that.”

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