Jewish museums, especially those in already well-visited places – continue to be among the most popular culture destinations in all of Europe. Last year Spain’s Sephardic Museum, in Toledo, attracted more visitors than any other state-run museum according to a report released by the Culture Ministry. The museum, housed in the historic Samuel Ha-Levi synagogue was visited by 295,889 people during the year. High numbers of visitors also continue for the Jewish Historical Museum in Amsterdam and the Jewish Museum in Prague, both of which are strategically located, and are comprised of historic and contemporary exhibits housed in former synagogues. The Jewish Museum in Berlin anchored by the still popular Daniel Libeskind-designed wing, also attracts large crowds.
Outsiders - that is, tourists - should also be welcome. They can add a new dimension, and also elevate a site's status locally. If they are come often they may improve services and informational offerings, and their presence and interest may stimulate new funding support. But not all Jewish heritage sites, especially cemeteries and small synagogues (or any type of cultural heritage site) can appeal to a large international audience, nor should they. Location can often discourage visitors no matter how important the history.
Nor can many heritage sites stand alone. To become real destinations instead of just toilet stops, most Jewish sites, like all heritage sites (museums, castles, churches, palaces, and the like) need to be part of larger groupings of sites and activities. Within a town, Jewish sites need to be promoted as part of the larger town heritage, and as one of the many inter-related cultural offerings. A Jewish site alone may hold a visitor for an hour. A Jewish site linked to others, can hold a visitor for a day or more.
The opportunity to visit a Jewish site and learn something of Jewish history, religion and culture is, for most people, still a rare opportunity. There are many more art and science museums, churches and palaces, parks and nature centers, and many other types of destinations. Jewish heritage is what we call a “niche” attraction. What it loses in popularity because it is not well-known and mainstream it can gain for exactly those same reasons.But it is important that when visitors come because a place is different or even exotic, they leave knowing more about Judaism and Jewishness.
I've been tracking the fate of Jewish heritage sites for more than twenty years. Looking back, the results, when they can be calculated, are quite impressive. The ultimate purpose of the protection and preservation of Jewish heritage sites should not be to create tourist centers; we are not in the entertainment business. Still, the success of of any preservation project - its initial support and funding, and its long term use and maintenance - may often depend on the amount of sustained interest it can attract. When planned wisely, Jewish communities, organizations and educators can tourists' interest to teach and inspire.