Cultural controversy

Sylvia Plotkin stands in the Tunisian Gallery of the museum that bears her name, circa 1988.

Photo courtesy of the Arizona Jewish Historical Society

Sylvia Plotkin devoted a substantial part of her adult life to the museum she founded at Temple Beth Israel (TBI), where her husband, Rabbi Albert Plotkin, was for decades the much-loved spiritual leader.

From the museum's beginning as a collection of Judaica in 1967 to her own death almost 30 years later, Sylvia made it her personal mission to broaden both the museum's collection and its goals.

Today, members of the museum's steering committee and others, including Pamela Levin, the museum's former director, say that the institution Sylvia Plotkin and others worked to establish is in jeopardy.

A letter dated June 28, 2004, from the museum's governing committee to the board of TBI, states that the major issues include the "reduction of the museum director's hours from a half-time position of 25 hours per week to 12 hours per week" and the idea that the museum should be led by a volunteer rather than a trained professional.

Levin started as a volunteer working alongside Plotkin in 1985; eventually she earned her degree in museum studies. As the museum's director, after Plotkin's death in 1996, she was paid for 25 hours of work a week and worked "still more volunteer hours on top of that," Levin said.

According to the June 28 letter, Rabbi Plotkin had raised $12,000 with the specific purpose of making up the cut in Levin's salary. The money came from a one-time donation by Ray Silverman. Speaking on Silverman's behalf, his son Tom told Jewish News that Silverman wrote the check specifically for the museum. "Wherever Plotkin wanted (the money to go)," Tom Silverman said, "that was OK with my dad."

Dr. Benjamin Harris, a member of the museum governing committee, told Jewish News that the funds did not go toward Levin's salary.

Not true, said TBI board President Sol Moretsky. "The funds went toward (Levin's) salary," Moretsky said. "Maybe not all of it for salary, but everything was designated toward the operation of the museum."

Moretsky directed further questions to TBI administrator Terry Taubman, who did not return repeated phone calls for this story in time for publication.

Plotkin, who is now rabbi emeritus at TBI, declined to comment, saying only that the situation was "too sensitive."

In June of this year, the TBI board eliminated the remaining half of Levin's salary from the budget, Harris said. Temple board members confirmed this information.

From a small collection of artifacts housed at the old temple, at 10th Street and Osborn Road, to a collection of more than 1,000 pieces and a regular schedule of traveling exhibits in its current home at 56th Street and Shea Boulevard, the Sylvia Plotkin Judaica Museum grew with the times. Permanent exhibits include a reconstructed Tunisian synagogue and a collection of material related to the Holocaust. Traveling exhibits have included "Jewish Women Pioneers in Quilts," in January 2004, the community's kickoff event for Celebrate 350.

Today, according to Levin, many of the museum's 8,000 annual visitors come from outside the Jewish community, including groups of school children and churchgoers interested in learning more about Judaism.

Harris and the members of the steering committee fear that without the guidance of a professional, the museum will lose its standing and its reputation.

Rabbi Stephen Kahn, spiritual leader of Temple Beth Israel since July 2003, said that he is "shocked and deeply saddened that people are worried about the future of the museum. The museum is fine. It's not going anywhere."

Kahn said that the cutbacks are necessary in order to achieve financial stability. He explained that the museum is part of the temple, like the preschool and the library, and not its own entity with a separate budget or 501(3)c status.

"I wish more people used the museum," he said, "and I definitely wish more people supported it. We have zero financial support for the museum."

"Certainly there is a tension between the financial capacity of the temple to support it and the individual needs of the museum," said Shelley Cohn, who is both the director of the Arizona Commission on the Arts and a prominent member of the Phoenix Jewish community. "And those in the best of situations are struggles in decision-making. At the same time, (the museum) has been such a strong national leader and program that it would be unfortunate for it to lose its momentum."

Kahn expressed his confidence in the museum's future and in its "very gifted group of docents."

"I would bet that the museum five years from now will be completely thriving," Kahn said. "I think short term it's going to be a little bit painful, but I think long term it's going to be huge and will continue to thrive."

Former TBI member Paulette Fraenkel sees things differently. Fraenkel, who belonged to the congregation for 30 years, left last year, along with her husband, Rudy, over their concerns about "what was happening with the museum."

"I have a very vested interest in this congregation," said Fraenkel, who knew Sylvia Plotkin and volunteered at the museum, "and I'm hurt very deeply about what's happening.

"This museum belongs to the community, and I know for a fact that there were people who were willing to work on solutions," Fraenkel said. "There are people that are saying that it should be offered to the community, maybe the Arizona Jewish Historical Society, maybe the (Jewish) Federation (of Greater Phoenix), maybe it should be a separate entity. There has to be some dialogue as to the things that are there."

Artist Beth Ames Swartz, whose work has been shown at the museum numerous times, expressed similar concerns. Referring to the museum as "first class," she wrote in an e-mail to Jewish News that "it would be a great loss to our community if it was run only by volunteers without a professional director. This would be the beginning of the end for this institution. People throughout the years have donated very valuable works of art to this museum with the understanding that they would be cared for professionally, and some of these people are now dead."

Who will be running the Plotkin museum now? According to Kahn, Levin has offered to stay on "as the volunteer coordinator and as the volunteer director of the museum in a limited capacity." But Levin told Jewish News that she won't be able to put in more than a couple of hours a week once she finds a full-time job, which she is currently seeking.

"(We need to) have our own endowment that provides the money for our operation," Levin said, "so that we are safeguarded from the ups and downs of the economy."

Swartz concurred. "If the board would be willing to support the concept of a separate endowment for the museum," she wrote, "we could reach out into the broader Jewish community and let them know they have an 'unsung jewel' in our midst."

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