At the age of 85, by which time most pillars of the community are content to rest on their laurels, Rabbi Albert Plotkin has just become the director of the museum that his late wife, Sylvia, founded almost 40 years ago at Congregation Beth Israel. Rabbi Plotkin was the temple's spiritual leader when the museum was born; today, he is the congregation's rabbi emeritus.
The museum he will direct on a volunteer basis is one of the first American Jewish museums and "a valuable asset to the Jewish museum field throughout the country," according to the Council of American Jewish Museums.
"I am so proud that Rabbi Plotkin will help to guide the museum's course in the coming years," Rabbi Stephen Kahn, CBI's current spiritual leader, said in a press release. "It is a perfect fit for our congregation, and I know how meaningful this is for him."
The museum lost its longtime director, Pam Levin, last summer, when CBI eliminated her paid position, and the museum's governing committee was subsequently dissolved. Since Levin's departure, the museum has been staffed by a small group of volunteers and docents. In the fall, said Carol Reynolds, volunteer director of the CBI library, Kahn asked her to chair a new museum committee. That committee, Reynolds said, began meeting early this year, just before the arrival of the current exhibit on Oskar Schindler, which is on loan from the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and had been booked several years before by Levin.
The museum's freelance exhibit designer, David Grove, who has installed most of the museum's shows for some two decades, calls Plotkin "a wonderful man."
"I love him to death, I loved his wife; she was wonderful and did great things for the community," he said. But along with others interviewed for this article, he expressed some concern about the rabbi's age and health.
Grove said that installing shows in Levin's absence has been more "challenging."
"There are certain things that I think the director needs to take care of and do between shows, and that stuff doesn't get done," said Grove, citing maintenance of the art and artifacts, and maintenance of the space as two examples. Grove noted that Plotkin, while he is widely respected in the community, has no museum training; former director Levin had a certificate in museum studies from Arizona State University.
The five remaining docents expressed their pleasure with Rabbi Plotkin's decision to helm the museum.
"The man is tireless," said Jerri Schubert, a CBI member who serves as the museum's tour coordinator.
The five, some of whom had been trained by Sylvia Plotkin herself and some by Levin, who was her protégée, had drafted a letter to CBI's board of directors announcing their resignation effective June 1, citing the difficulty of working without, in their words, guidance or leadership.
Two days after the docents drafted their letter of resignation, Plotkin presented himself to Kahn as a candidate for the director position.
"I volunteered because I admired my wife's work so much," Plotkin told Jewish News, "and I wanted to see it continue on a higher level. I hope to bring new shows and new exhibits to the Valley. And to make it a teaching museum ... by bringing scholars and artists and other professional people in museum work to give us a deeper understanding of the Judaica we have and the Judaica we probably should acquire."
In addition to the Schindler exhibit currently on view, the museum permanently houses the "Tunisian Legacy Exhibit," a re-creation with original artifacts of a small, early 20th-century synagogue in Tunis.
Arizona Jewish Historical Society director Larry Bell, who remembers visiting the museum as a child, told Jewish News, "The Tunisian synagogue exhibit in particular is really a cultural gem for our community."
Former CBI congregant Steven Orlikoff, who donated the collection that includes the Tunisian synagogue to CBI "on permanent loan," concurs. And he points out that there are many objects in the Tunisian collection that have never been displayed.
"When I spoke to Al Plotkin a couple of weeks ago, he was optimistic" about the road ahead, said Orlikoff, an international lawyer based in New York City.
Orlikoff acknowledged that keeping the museum going without a professional director posed some challenges, but he, like Plotkin, was optimistic.
"It takes vision and it takes dedication and it takes money, and there are people with all that," Orlikoff said. "You just have to bring them together.
"This is an opportunity for people to open up a dialogue."