Scene Changes

This year may offer a new landscape for Denver's two Judaica museums.

There are big changes afoot at the little Mizel Museum of Judaica.

First, the impending remodel of the BJ-BMH Synagogue, where it is housed, may put the museum out on the street, or at least into storage, and force it to cancel its upcoming schedule.

The proposed design for the facelift -- on display in the museum lobby -- is presented with panels and is complete with lowest-common-denominator drawings and tacky material samples. The new plan includes a clunky podium and a bombastic, zigzag background that make the synagogue's main sanctuary look like one of those fundamentalist Christian super-churches down around Highlands Ranch.

"Untitled (Paper Green)," by Steven Altman, mixed-media painting.
"Untitled (Paper Green)," by Steven Altman, mixed-media painting.
"Tzedakah Box," by Jutta Golas, glazed ceramic.
"Tzedakah Box," by Jutta Golas, glazed ceramic.
Mizel Museum of Judaica, 560 South Monaco Parkway

Through May 15

303-333-4156

Untitled: Steven Altman

Through March 5

ILK on Santa Fe, 554 Santa Fe Drive

303-615-5725

It was designed -- if you want to call it that -- by Hans Kahn Associates, a Denver firm. Hopefully that beautiful little chapel on the south side won't be lost in the process. The chapel, like the synagogue, was originally designed in 1966 by Murrin, Kasch, Kahn and Associates -- ironically, a predecessor of Hans Kahn Associates.

Second, after five years at the institution's helm, associate director Leona Lazar has been forced out by the MMJ's figurehead of a director, Rabbi Stanley Wagner. The decision came as a complete surprise to most of the MMJ's board of governors; the vast majority of them have signed a public tribute to Lazar, praising her efforts and accomplishments.

The timing of the ouster was also shocking, since Lazar had just given the MMJ a national presence. Her last day at the museum was just two weeks after the conclusion of the conference of the Council of American Jewish Museums held in Phoenix, which she had organized. Some will recall, however, that the same thing happened to Lazar's predecessor, Francine Haber. Having raised the MMJ's profile and made it a vital part of the local cultural scene in a way that it had never been before, Haber was rewarded by being pushed out of her job in 1995.

Rabbi Wagner is expected to step down himself in June, but he will probably stay involved with the institution, perhaps serving on the board of trustees. Ellen Gorgenyi, the MMJ's director of education, will serve as interim associate director until a replacement is found.

But hold on -- the list of changes isn't over yet. Preliminary discussions are under way to permanently move the museum out of the South Monaco Parkway synagogue and merge it with the Mizel Arts Center at the Jewish Community Center in Hilltop. The MAC is a multidisciplinary institution that has a fine-art department as well as literature, film and theater departments. The MAC director is Joanne Kauvar, who formerly worked at the MMJ.

Word about the possible merger leaked out a few weeks ago, when JCC director Paula Herzmark alerted members of the tennis program that the tennis house -- the big, ugly tin can that mars the center's south side on Leetsdale Drive -- might be demolished to make room for a freestanding museum to house the MMJ and the visual-art component of the MAC (which is now presented in the small Singer Gallery). Tennis-program members are up in arms, and a rancorous public meeting was held last week, complete with picketers and petitions. But the new museum already looks like a done deal.

Herzmark has a lot of relevant experience. She headed up the JCC's total redo a few years ago and before that was a key player in discussions leading up to the Denver Public Library addition and remodel.

She has told people close to the JCC that she wants the proposed museum to be a signature building and is considering some of the best-known local architecture firms in an informal way. And bravo to her for that. We can only hope that the chosen firm will take advantage of this opportunity by creating a distinctive work of art in harmony with the existing JCC.

Another good thing about the merger, if it happens -- and I think it will -- is that the confusion over two Jewish institutions with the same name and located only a mile apart will be cleared up. Instead of having the alphabet soup of the MMJ at the BJ-BMH and the MAC at the JCC, we'll be able to simply call it the Mizel. And won't that be nice.

Despite the tumult, the show must go on, and the MMJ is now presenting a handsome group ceramics exhibit called The Tzedakah Box Invitational, featuring the work of more than two dozen Colorado artists. Like so many others, it was timed to coincide with the National Council for Education in the Ceramic Arts meeting, which will be held in Denver later this month.

The first question that most people will ask about this show is, "What in heaven's name is a tzedakah box?"

According to museum curator Molly Dubin, a tzedakah box is a small container kept in the home in which coins are collected for charity. "When Jewish people in Denver think of tzedakah, they remember National Jewish Hospital's pushke cans," she says, referring to the little metal cans with a slot in the top. But the definition of tzedakah is much broader. "Tzedakah is a pillar of Jewish culture," says Dubin. "It refers to open-handed charity. It goes back to ancient times, when Jewish farmers would leave a part of their harvest in the fields to be gathered up by the needy.

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