The Sylvia Plotkin Judaica Museum at Congregation Beth Israel in Scottsdale, which began life as a small collection of artifacts and grew into a museum containing more than 1,000 pieces, including a replica of the Western Wall, recently underwent a face-lift.
The effort seems to be a happy and necessary chapter in the story of the 41-year-old museum.
"We were terribly limited because of the space," said Rabbi Albert Plotkin, the museum's current director and rabbi emeritus of CBI, which both owns and houses the museum. "(The renovation) gives as much space for exhibitions, and it gives us a greater opportunity to use it for other functions."
It was Plotkin's late wife, Sylvia, who founded the collection, one of the first of its kind and "a valuable asset to the Jewish museum field throughout the country," according to the Council of American Jewish Museums.
Sylvia Plotkin dedicated much of her life to overseeing the museum, which at its high point boasted hundreds of members and several traveling exhibits, according to Pamela Levin, former museum director.
Levin, who began as a volunteer at the museum in 1985, took over as director after Sylvia's death in 1996. She remained as director until 2005, when the temple board eliminated her salary.
Rabbi Plotkin, who is now 87, has been the museum's volunteer director for more than two years. He summed up his response to the renovation in one word: "Hallelujah."
"I think it's fabulous," Plotkin said. "And it is really something that is a tribute to my late beloved wife, who was the founder. She would have been very pleased."
Temple museum committee member Benjamin Harris said the purpose of the renovation was "to open up the museum somewhat so that it could be available for social events."
"Museums all over the country are trying to have multiple uses of their space," Harris said. "Phoenix Art Museum has all kinds of functions in their space. ... It adds an extra dimension to what the museum is able to do in terms of hosting a variety of functions."
Neil Borowicz, a partner with Argo, the company that performed the renovation, said that the challenge of the job was reconfiguring the space while "keeping as much of the integrity of the museum as possible."
"We moved existing casework, demoed some walls and reinstalled the artwork," Borowicz wrote in an e-mail. "In the end, we only removed one case, and I think got them as much space as possible for events."
A former exhibition designer for the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art, Borowicz called the Sylvia Plotkin Judaica Museum "a gem."
"It's a beautiful museum," he said, "and it was a pleasure learning about it and the people who care for it as we worked."
The renovated space was inaugurated by Carol Reynolds, chairperson of the museum committee. On the morning of July 19, Reynolds, who is also president of the congregation and director of the temple library, chanted Torah at services, after which a small Kiddush luncheon was held in the museum.
"It's just fabulous," Reynolds said of the museum's new look. "It works. Before, people couldn't mingle. Now, it's open and everyone feels like they're part of everything."
The renovation involved removing "a redundant case of hanukkiah" and tearing down a faux wall that hid a storage space, but Reynolds was quick to point out that "everything is intact and nothing has been lost." The larger space, she said, "allows us now to have people who want to have a baby naming or a Shabbat dinner- or even a small wedding could take place in there."
And, she added, "the ambiance is beautiful. At night, we can turn on the display cases and maybe have candles on tables."
Local artist Beth Ames Swartz, who has served for the past year or so as, in her words, "a quiet curator," called the renovation "a wonderful sign." She said that she had stepped in to offer her services until the temple was able to hire another curator, and that she looks forward "to seeing the museum blossom again."
"I trust the board members and the (current) rabbi see the vital importance of this museum- that it's historically important, plus it has an important collection of not only Judaica but art by Jewish artists."
In March, with Swartz's help, the museum presented work by Phoenix sculptor Brad Konick; three more exhibits are tentatively planned, the first of which, a group show featuring local artists, will go up in January 2009. It includes sculpture by Rhonda Zwillinger and drawings by Sherman Saperstein, a self-taught artist in his 70s to whom Swartz refers jokingly as "Grandpa Moses."
"There are a few artists that have never been seen in the community before," Swartz told Jewish News. "I think it'll be an interesting show."
Rabbi Plotkin is pleased the institution that bears his wife's name will be providing local contemporary artists with a place to show their work.
"They can't just sit there in their studio," he said. "They have to get out in the community.
"That's the purpose of the museum: not only to deal with the past but to deal with the future, and today."
Congregation Beth Israel is located at 10460 N. 56th St. in Scottsdale. For information about visiting or hosting an event at the museum, contact CBI at 480-951-0323.