The fourth graders from Yeshivat Noam of Bergenfield, NJ, could not resist calling out answers to their struggling compatriots who were trying to score points on the Jewish Children’s Museum’s game show activity. “Twenty-two!” “Fifteen!” “Come on Tzvi!”
After a few moments of gazing at the jumbo flat screen that spanned the wall behind them, the boys were ready to find the matching menorah that was hiding in the on-screen version of the Memory game. A nattily attired game show host wearing a silver tie clicked a mouse to reveal the answer. The Yeshivat Noam class cheered, and their opponents from Breuers Yeshiva whispered among themselves and shifted on the risers eager for their turn. The hi-tech game show studio is a favorite of every group touring the Museum, said tour guide Chaim Benjaminson.
Those students were among the ones lucky enough to score a reservation for a group tour at the Jewish Children’s Museum. As of June 22, the Museum reported it was completely booked up with camps, youth and senior programs. Families and individuals are still welcome to visit, but any groups making reservations now will have to wait until September to see the creative, animated activities that propelled the popularity of the Jewish Children’s Museum.
More than 350 children a day will be traipsing through the museum over the summer. Since opening to the public during the Passover holiday, when some 5,500 visitors crawled through, twanged, and punched buttons on the interactive exhibits, the Museum staff has gotten smart to the art of crowd control.
Group sizes are limited to about 25 students, tour times are staggered and their itineraries are choreographed to give each group time and space to experience the museum fully, according to the Museum’s educational director Nissen Brenenson. Between the exhibit gallery, Jewish lifecycle miniature golf course, the game show, the 75-seat theater, and craft rooms, there’s more than enough space to keep museum-goers content and occupied.
On a quiet morning before the summer rush, Avi Efron, 11, fiddled with a bow and arrow model, aiming its laser dot at the computer to score a point and learn about the Jewish celebration of Lag B’Omer. His grandparents, Rosalyn and Chaim Efron, cheered him on. “I think the conceptualizations are ingenious,” said Chaim, who was visiting from Silver Spring, MD. “The Museum is fine for children of all backgrounds because it hits the highlights of how Jews exercise their faith.”
The laser guided game, one of the most popular stops on the third floor’s Jewish holiday activities, is just one of the techno-wonders at the Jewish Children’s Museum. Ultraviolet lights pick up leaven in the Passover section. A Disney-fied tree flaps its ridged bark mouth as it delivers a spiel on the parallels between humankind and nature. Flowers grow and the Ten Commandments drop from the heavens in the Mount Sinai corner. Keeping the gadgetry up and running in the Museum has been another learning curve for the staff.
“We have learned that exhibit maintenance is a full time job,” said Brenenson. “This is a children’s museum. Everything here is meant to be played with, and everything takes a good deal of use and abuse.”
Even though the overwhelming crowds on Passover were the Museum’s trial by fire, the Museum’s group bookings exploded right after the holiday. Advertising and press coverage helped, but word of mouth post-Passover has been the best referral source. Just in the first three months of its opening, the Museum has seen about 25,000 visitors, according to Benjaminson.
Reservations poured in from some unlikely sources. The summer camps of Duryea Baptist Church and Berean Presbyterian Church, both of Brooklyn, have booked visit dates. Accommodating groups of all backgrounds is part of the Museum’s mission to foster tolerance and counter prejudice through education. “A lot of intolerance and indifference comes from not understanding. At the Museum I hear a lot of non-Jewish children say, ‘I always wondered about that,’” said Brenenson.
Jewish groups of every philosophy will be visiting the museum this summer as well. This comes as no surprise to Cherie Benjoseph of Parkland, FL, who brought her two children to see the exhibits. “It’s a very open environment. I was so impressed all the time I was going through the museum. We live for hands-on, experiential learning, and to have a place that has all that and has something about G-dliness is very special.”
By the time summer camps book for next year’s visits, there will be a whole new floor of interactive, multimedia, and hi-tech surprises to enjoy at the Jewish Children’s Museum. Directors and activity planners had better book early.