sign up for our mailing list
Third Thursday Thoughts: Reflections from the Executive Director


November 16, 2023 | Third Thursday Thoughts
Dawn LaRochelle, Executive Director

Full disclosure: I am shamelessly using this platform to assert bragging rights. Last Sunday, my Peter, my second born, the one (of three!) I love, took the individual title in the NCAA Division III Regional Cross-Country Championship, clocking in at 24:45.1 in the 8K and cinching a first-place finish for Haverford College. Peter is one of only fourteen students in Haverford College history to have taken home a regional crown, a feat for which he was yesterday named Metro Region Athlete of the Year! My husband and I are headed to Pennsylvania as you read this column to cheer on “Speedy Petey” and the Haverford Goats at the National Championship. Proud mama moment!

Image: “Speedy Petey”

I was a decent cross-country runner in high school, and daily 10Ks remain my go-to for getting in my aerobics and decompressing. But Peter, who lovingly refers to me as a “hobby jogger,” was truly born to run. Running informs his thinking, his doing, his mindset, his identity. And it’s the process as much as the product that drives him. It therefore did not surprise me that even in the immediate afterglow of his victory at Regionals, Peter wasn’t ecstatic so much as he was reflective. The thing he most loved about running, he mused, was that you could “always ask yourself a new question” to push yourself to the next level. Before Sunday, his question was, “Could I win Regionals?” Not just whether he had the raw talent and ability to win, mind you, but whether conditions would be such that he would perform the day of. Now, the new question is, “Could I be an All-American?” To be an All-American, you must finish in the top 40 at Nationals. One model predicts Peter to place 32nd, but as Peter points out, all that matters is the day of.

As a Museum Director, I, too, am always asking myself that “new question.” And right now, that question is, “Could the Maine Jewish Museum play a meaningful role in the community after October 7?” Not just whether we have the know-how and resources to do so, but whether conditions are such that we have space to make a positive impact. Does celebrating and honoring the contributions of Maine Jewry have relevance in the face of terrorism, murder, brutalization, abduction, and now a devastating ground war in Gaza? Is it still possible, amidst growing polarization, to use art exhibitions, historical displays, and diverse programming to build bridges of appreciation and understanding between people of all backgrounds? Can anything we do make a difference in a world spinning off its axis, with anger and violence and pain so extensive, so deep, that just getting through each doomscrolling day is a challenge?

Peace in the Middle East may beyond our purview, but with antisemitic incidents (already at the highest level ever recorded prior to October 7) up 400% since October 7, we can and must do our part to combat the hatred. To this end, our current photographic exhibition debunks the antisemitic myth that there is one “Jewish look.” Photographer Yoav Horesh was born in Jerusalem to a Persian-born mother and a Slovakian father. From 2008 to 2015, he photographed 55 family members (parents, siblings, uncles, aunts, and their children), directing his large-format camera to each family member’s unique facial features. These photographs are the starting point for Yoav’s interactive exhibition, PerSlovak 2.0,  which gives visitors the opportunity, using a computer database of black and white photographic options, to pick and choose facial features to create and print portraits to hang on the Museum walls. There are 9 million different possible facial compositions, and we hope to see our walls covered with each and every one of them, proof that Jews cannot be stereotyped by race or ethnicity or nose or hair or skin color, despite harmful antisemitic propaganda to the contrary. Yoav will be giving an artist talk at the Museum on Friday, December 1, at 5:00 PM, when he will do a deep dive into the thinking behind this seminal exhibition.

Our Delet Program is also designed to address increasing antisemitism through youth education and outreach. “Delet” is the Hebrew word for “door,” and the goal of the program is to open the door to enhanced knowledge and understanding of Jews and Judaism by bringing the Museum to diverse middle and high schools, and diverse middle and high schools to the Museum. With generous funding from the Sam L. Cohen Foundation , we have developed culturally responsive curricula to demystify Judaism, discredit conspiracy falsehoods, and expose students – many of whom have had little or no interaction with Jews – to the richness and vitality of Maine’s small but mighty Jewish community. Over the past several months, we have worked with Deering High School, King Middle School, the Friends School, Oak Hill Middle School, Libson High School, and Casco Bay High School, among others.

Education doesn’t stop when we reach adulthood, and beyond the classroom, we strive to connect people to the Maine Jewish experience and Jewish Mainers to their roots. One of the less flashy tasks we have been working on for many months is moving the maintained application for our third-floor kiosk from a third party to our website, making exhibitions more user friendly as well as substantially easier to update. This process facilitated our first new permanent historical exhibition in over two years, A Song and a Prayer – Cantorial Music in Maine , a tribute to Maine’s cantors through biographies and photographs, recordings and film. It also connects synagogue songs of old to modern musicians (Barbara Streisand, Leonard Bernstein, and Leonard Cohen, to name a few) who have crossed genre lines, bringing liturgical music to a wider audience. Stop by the Museum and check it out – or, if colder temperatures have you hibernating at home, you can also experience the exhibition online. And remember what I said about web-based exhibitions being easier to update? Stay tuned for some long-overdue updates to Maine Synagogues Past and Present !

We cannot meet this pivotal moment alone. Community collaborations are more important now than ever as we look to build alliances, expand our impact, and share our mission with a broader audience. So it makes me proud that in the past two weeks alone, we partnered with Mayo Street Arts on two Trio Sefardi performances that introduced Mainers to the Ladino language, history, and culture; we teamed up with the Maine Jewish Film Festival and Bethel’s Gem Theater on a screening of “The Art of Silence,’’ a documentary shedding new light on the life of the mime Marcel Marceau; and we joined forces with the Holocaust and Human Rights Center of Maine to put together an interactive workshop for 65 high school juniors and seniors on the little-known history of Sephardic Jews during the Holocaust.

Could the Maine Jewish Museum play a meaningful role in the community after October 7? In addition to having the know-how and resources to do so, are conditions such that we have space to make a positive impact? A few weeks ago, when I was at a particularly low ebb, I arrived at the Museum to find a bag of Jerusalem coffee on my desk with a hand-written note from my friend, a Muslim immigrant and New Mainer. The note, which now lives in my nightstand drawer and is re-read at least twice a day, says:

I hope this finds you and your loved ones well in these challenging times! I have been thinking about you and wanted to check in and see how you’ve been. Sending love, hugs, and coffee. I hope we all find strength in each other’s company. Israel lives!

I don’t have a crystal ball, but I believe the answer to my question is a resounding yes.

May the warm glow of autumn surround you and your loved ones this Thanksgiving, may the hostages return swiftly and safely home, and may there be lasting peace in Israel.

With best wishes,