“Step inside, bevakasha.”
As visitors to the new Museum of the Bible in Washington moved from one room of the immersive walk-through experience depicting “The Hebrew Bible,” those were the words that greeted them.
The announcer didn’t explain or translate bevakasha, the Hebrew word for please; instead it was just casually slipped it into the narrative inside the 40,000 sq.m., more than $500 million museum in downtown Washington, which opened to the public in November.
On a Monday morning in mid-November, on just the third day it was officially opened, visitors were already streaming through the museum’s eight floors. While museum organizers say it would take about 72 hours to visit every exhibit and read every placard, I had about two hours to take in as much as I could. I left with the impression that the museum was not only an ode to Judaism but also to the modern State of Israel.
The museum is the brainchild of Steve Green, the president of the Hobby Lobby chain of crafts stores in the US. Green and Hobby Lobby have long been associated with conservative Evangelical causes, most famously in the US Supreme Court case where the corporation opposed being required to provide emergency contraceptives to employees through their healthcare plan.
Green even got in hot water earlier this year over his acquisitions of artifacts for the museum. In July, Hobby Lobby agreed to forfeit thousands of artifacts illegally smuggled from the Middle East through antiquities dealers. The company also agreed to pay $3 million to settle the charges. Hobby Lobby said it was “new to the world of antiquities” and did not “understand the correct way to document and ship them.”
But the setback didn’t delay or stop the museum, which was dedicated in a grand manner just a few weeks ago in front of hundreds of invited guests. A few days after that, I got the chance to wander through the halls of the impressive structure, which was almost seven years in the making. Wherever I went, I felt little touches of Israel – both biblical and modern.
STEP INTO one of the elevators in the museum, and you’re greeted by wall-to-wall screens projecting images of cities around Israel. Get out on one of the exhibit floors and there’s a good chance you’ll be greeted by Hebrew chanting – I heard Az Yashir (Song of the Sea) melodically rendered on one of the floors. Dine in the museum’s restaurant, Manna, and you’ll be treated to the extremely non-biblical Israeli couscous, pistachio hummus, pumpkin falafel and labaneh.
Museum organizers said the cafe allows “guests to savor modern tastes of the Middle East by combining the complex flavors, history and vibrancy of the Mediterranean region in its dining experience.”
The museum said it also offers kosher options at the cafe and its coffee shop.
If the subtle links to the State of Israel weren’t enough, consider the explicit ones. The fifth floor hosts a permanent exhibit from the Israel Antiquities Authority, including around 800 artifacts from archeological excavations. Jerusalem’s Bible Lands Museum has also provided an exhibit, “In the Valley of David and Goliath,” this one temporary, on display in one of the museum’s basement floors.
At the museum’s grand opening on November 17, Israeli Ambassador to the US Ron Dermer addressed the crowd, ahead of the ribbon cutting, as did Tourism Minister Yariv Levin.
“May the Bible continue to protect and guide America as it has protected and guided Israel,” said Dermer. “May it unite your people as much as it has united mine, and may it give this nation the strength to continue to lead the world for generations and generations to come.”
Levin said, “The government of Israel is proud to partner with the museum in this very important initiative by opening here the first and only permanent exhibition of the Israeli Antiquities Authority outside the State of Israel.”
While the museum houses a vast array of Israeli archeological artifacts, it also houses a real-life Israeli transplant who sits there on a daily basis: Beit Shemesh Rabbi Eliezer Adam. Adam, a lawyer, scribe and teacher, was brought to the DC area for a year by the museum organizers, to sit in a wing of the History of the Bible exhibit and write a Torah scroll while people watch. Adam told The Jerusalem Post Magazine that while his friends were a bit surprised at the short-term move, he saw it as an interesting adventure.
“Everybody’s reaction was: ‘What, you’re crazy, they’re Evangelical, they’re going to try and convert you, they have a hidden agenda,’” said Adam. After a lengthy pause he added, “That wasn’t my impression. And even if it was, I’m intrigued.”
Adam himself has explored much of what the museum has to offer and is very impressed – and not concerned about its motivations or agenda.
“If the people behind the museum think that it’ll help bring the Moshiach [Messiah], then I wouldn’t mind the Moshiach coming,” he said. “I think we’re all on the same page.”
AFTER MEETING Adam, I moved on to the “The Hebrew Bible” interactive media experience, which walks 40 guests at a time through 15 separate galleries spread over 3,700 sq.m.
From “A World in Chaos,” depicting Cain killing Abel, through “The Great Flood” to “The Burning Bush,” and later the plagues and an “exodus” from Egypt through the Red Sea, the digital renderings are all-encompassing. While visitors watch the plagues descend on the Egyptians and the Jews gather for the Passover meal, the voiceover tells of future generations retelling the story “so the children will ask” – a common Jewish trope about the holiday.
It’s hard not to feel a strong Jewish focus here; compare “The Hebrew Bible” exhibit to “The New Testament” live experience: That one has just 465 sq.m. and two gallery spaces for visitors.
Adam said while he said he has heard concerns from Jewish visitors that they will encounter heavy Christian imagery, he doesn’t think that’s the case.
“There’s a lot more Judaism here than Christianity,” he said. “If I didn’t know better, I’d say the Jews designed this place.” That being said, Adam admitted he had helped guide the organizers through a few decisions and corrections, and not just on his desk for writing.
The Jesus of Nazareth exhibit, he said, which recreates a first-century village, had a synagogue and a mikve (ritual bath), but no mezuzot.
There are three main exhibit floors in the museum, in addition to special exhibits and interactive features. On the second floor, visitors experience “The Impact of the Bible” – first in both America and the world; a live “Bible Now” media feed; and an exploration of the biblical touches found around Washington, DC.
On the third floor are the aforementioned Hebrew Bible and New Testament exhibits, along with “The World of Jesus of Nazareth” and the Galilee Theater, where you can “witness the dramatic conflict between Herod Antipas and John the Baptist, two different leaders pursuing two different kingdoms.”
Make your way up to the fourth floor, where you’ll find Adam (except on Saturdays) writing a Torah scroll in one corner of the “History of the Bible” exhibit, alongside a Bible reading room and research lab. The other floors house both temporary and permanent exhibits in addition to a restaurant, cafe and of course, a gift shop.
WITH JUST a few minutes to spare before I had to leave the museum, I wandered into the gift shop and overheard two people speaking Hebrew – and wearing official name tags – in the corner.
They were Avi Tavisal and Rivka Hajbi of The Moriah Collection, which creates unique handmade jewelry from Jerusalem stone. The pair flew from Israel to Washington for the museum’s opening, to set things up and ensure their items were properly showcased.
Hajbi said that the collection, which includes rings, earrings, pendants and artwork, is made of stones sifted from excavations at the Temple Mount.
“Seventeen years ago, a truck destroyed a whole section of history,” said Hajbi, referring to the 1999 controversial construction by the Wakf. “After some time it became part of an archeology sifting project… our company is the only one that got permission to use stones that were thrown out of the Temple Mount,” she said. “We took the stones and made them into one-of-akind pieces of jewelry.”
It makes sense that the pair flew to the museum for the opening, and not just because it is their first time ever selling the collection in the United States. The pieces, many encrusted with diamonds and other precious stones, range from over $1,000 to more than $40,000.
Tavisal said the museum organizers contacted him at the beginning of the year, and said they’d seen his work in Jerusalem and wanted to bring it to the gift shop.
“The problem we have is each one is handmade and we cannot supply so many,” he said. “Everything is limited edition.”
Even if visitors to the Museum of the Bible don’t walk out with a physical piece of Jerusalem in hand, they’ll certainly depart with a lingering sense of having visited Israel.
Read more at WHERE FOCUS ON THE BIBLE IS MORE THAN A HOBBY.