Feb 15, 2016

Like Abraham’s Tent: Inclusivity and Other Lessons From The Zimmer Children's Museum


With so many options of places to bring kids for a little entertainment, how does one choose?

Checking priorities is one way—are you looking for something educational? Something inclusive? Creatively engaging? An experience in diversity that also encourages play?

If the answer is yes to any of those questions, and you happen to find yourself in southern California, then you need look no further than the Zimmer Children’s Museum.

As Esther Netter, CEO of the Zimmer explains, “in this space we’re conscious of how people interact with one another, and we’re aware that our audience is everybody. We’re focused on programming that teaches mitzvot bein adam l’chavero, and we see these behavioral obligations as really aspirational.”

How can one be a mensch? That’s a guideline for all Zimmer programs.

The Zimmer, now in existence 24 years, started as a tiny 600 square foot space with model sukkot fashioned out of PVC, foam core and canvas. Now, it’s the only children’s museum in LA and has expanded to 10,000 square feet. Over 82,000 visitors come to the Zimmer each year.

“We started with limited hours and our mission was originally 100% focused on Jewish families,” Netter said. “But I realized quickly that this space was going to have to offer something to everyone.” Netter described how during that first week of operation, she watched as a couple without a child walked through the museum doors. After speaking with them, she understood they were an interfaith couple and she listened as the Jewish partner turned to the non-Jewish partner, while looking at a cork wall painted to look like the kotel, and said, “See? This is the wall in Jerusalem that I was telling you about. This is why I want to go on our honeymoon to Israel.”

Netter explained that as she observed this moment during the Zimmer’s early days, she realized that every educational decision the Museum made needed to consider inclusivity, and not make assumptions about who the visitor would be—or how much knowledge he or she had.

“How do we fashion a space that’s intergenerational, that allows the ultra orthodox and the non-Jewish visitor alike, to visit and feel comfortable?” she mused.

As the Museum evolved, so did this consideration of environment, a central aspect of the education that happens there. As Netter sees it, what matters is not just the topic of any particular Museum program, but also, the space in which that program occurs.

And while it hasn’t been a straight path toward creating just the type of space that would accommodate the myriad of visitors who come through The Zimmer’s doors each day, it’s certainly been a thoughtful one.

“In this evolution,” Netter said, “We have seen visitors coming to us from every community, of every skin color, in every family cohort combination. We do not look homogeneous, which I think is reflective of the Jewish community and the community at large. The Zimmer is like Abraham’s tent, but with the flaps turned up.”

Through those flaps walk families who are registered for bilingual Spanish-English sing-along classes called “Pequenos Rocqueros,” Toddler Town classes taught in Farsi, Japanese, French and Spanish, and so many other kinds of offerings that the Zimmer calendar offers a veritable rainbow of cultural options for every type of visitor.

Netter’s ideas about the kind of open space that the Zimmer serves to provide in its Los Angeles community are certainly reflective of the inclusivity so many Jewish educators are focused on in their professional spaces as well.

“We’re part of an amazing tradition that has so much in common with other traditions,” she said, “and it’s through finding those places and spaces of commonality that we can support all different kinds of families.”

To this end, and because of their deep commitment to notions of tikkun olam, Netter and her colleagues decided to take their educational approach and create similar experiences for older youth, in places that weren’t location-bound.

The result is youTHink, an innovative education program that offers a community of diverse upper elementary through high school students throughout the Los Angeles area the opportunity to engage with art and nurture their critical thinking and literacy skills, while also working within the larger community to bring about social change. youTHink programs range from lessons brought into Title 1 LA public schools, professional development opportunities for teachers, leadership and community projects beyond the classroom walls, and much more.

“The youTHink programs and community follow from the kind of space we create in the museum,” Netter explained. “In the Zimmer, young kids pretend to be rescuers, fire fighters and super heroes, in our youth development programming,  older youth practice being advocates, builders, and leaders and rescuers. Little kids pretend, big kids, practice.” 

youTHink programming also focuses on helping young people develop their “voice,” on teaching how we listen respectfully to others, on modeling how to civilly share opinions, and listening to someone with whom one might disagree. They do this by bringing youTHink educators and facilitators into the classroom during the school day, and by providing community service and civic engagement programming after school and on weekends.

“Students learn that there’s a relationship dance and a community dance, and when you learn the steps of the dance, your interactions with others become seamless, and influence how you think about yourself, your place within your family, your school community, your broader community, and the world,” Netter added.

There are different levels of youTHink engagement, too. There’s what happens at the school level, when youTHink educators and facilitators are brought in as special guests, but then there’s also community service and civic engagement programming on weekends and during school vacations.

“Helping us lead, facilitate and model all of our core values off-campus is a cohort of 40 middle and high school student leaders,” Netter explained. “They are our youTHink ambassadors.” This number will increase to 75 next year. 

One might wonder how the work of a children’s museum founded in the Jewish community intersects with the needs of an average Southern California public school. But as Netter explains it, the notion of paying attention to how we interact with one another, and standards of civil and dignified behavior, knows no racial or ethnic boundaries.

“Most of us spend our time surrounded by people who are just like us. But it’s so important to bring ourselves, our students and our own kids into situations—central and public spaces—where we can bump shoulders with and interact with people who are different, who have different experiences.

“This is about being open and not being stuck, about accepting challenges that exist within our own philosophies and community, about rejecting the idea that there’s someone who’s in and someone who’s out, and instead, recognizing that society is constantly changing, and we need to figure out how to make our institutions relevant, and adjust to the times. This will fortify and strengthen us all.”

By Adina Kay-Gross for The Covenant Foundation

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