History of the Mizel Museum

An idea either evolves or goes away. But what began 30 years ago in a display case at BMH-BJ Congregation in Denver has transcended space, time and self-definition, and even gained significance, to remain relevant.

Founded by Rabbi Stanley Wagner and local philanthropists Carol and Larry A. Mizel, the Mizel Museum of Judaica enabled all people to appreciate Jewish culture and explore Jewish life in Colorado. When its doors opened, the museum dedicated itself to the broad diversity of Jewish life through art, architecture, archeology, ritual and customs through the Diaspora. It curated its own exhibitions and programs, as well as brining in others from Jewish museums throughout the US.

From 1982 to 2002 in the single room at BMH the Mizel Museum displayed Jewish art and artifacts, starting out like any other Jewish museum with the obligatory menorah exhibition. The need for space grew as the number and size of exhibitions, and its reputation grew.

In 1986, Rabbi Wagner introduced It Shall be a Crown Upon Your Head: Headware Symbolism in Judaism, Christianity and Islam, the first interfaith exhibition of its kind in the world. The opening event attracted clergy from all faiths, including Archbishop James Stafford, who had never been in a Jewish house of worship.

In 1994, the museum developed Bridges of Understanding, an exhibit that showcased Native American, Muslim, African American, Hispanic, Asian and Jewish cultures. The exhibit brought communities and students together, teaching tolerance, understanding, ancestry and the idea that people aren’t that different—we do the same things, just in different ways. It was viewed as a giant leap forward for a museum because it initiated and welcomed community involvement and inclusivity. Now the Mizel Museum of Judaica needed to grow into the community and into a facility that could reach everyone. The essence of community changed as it stepped into the future, reaching large multicultural audiences, and a fresh, new excitement permeated its exhibitions.

In 2004, the word “Judaica” was dropped when it relocated to the original Rodef Shalom synagogue, built in 1959, at the corer of Dakota and Kearney Streets in Denver. The name change allowed the museum to proceed in new directions, while at the same time not sacrificing its Jewish character. Once again the museum experienced a new beginning, taking on a new existence in three forms: The Mizel Museum, The Counterterrorism Education Learning Lab (The CELL) and as a steward of Babi Yar Park. The missions of each site complement each other and give Mizel Museum the ability to ground itself in salient 21st century issues, including the Holocaust, immigration, and multiculturalism.

In 2010, a strategic planning effort led to the development of the museum’s new manner of existence: it is a portal to the contemporary Jewish experience. Rooted in Jewish values, the Museum’s exhibits, events and programs inspire visitors of all ages and backgrounds to celebrate diversity and honor the journeys of all people. Through a full spectrum of expression, including fine art, film, literature and drama, the museum offers interactive and memorable experiences that engage the community and the dynamic ways that each of our journeys interweave.

The museum’s reinvention is embodied in its first permanent exhibit. 4,000 Year Road Trip: Gathering Sparks opened in February 2011, and will remain the museum’s centerpiece for the next two years. The exhibit is a dynamic journey through art, artifacts and digital media that narrates and illuminates Jewish history and culture. Museum programs stem from the 17 subjects that are encompassed in Gathering Sparks, and new and varied approaches to teaching the Holocaust, immigration, Jewish life and culture, and global issues have been devised. The Community Narratives project, which currently includes 50 stories, enhances the exhibit and Museum programs by telling meaningful, life-changing personal experiences through an audio/visual format.

In 2012, the museum is happily celebrating its 30th anniversary with special exhibitions, events, performances, camps, artist talks and community gatherings. This year the museum will unveil its newest traveling exhibit, a collaborative effort called Stories Matter. The CELL will soon reopen with a redesign built around the eight signs of terrorism, and Babi Yar Park will add the September 11 Memorial to its landscape, incorporating steel from the former site of the World Trade Center.

“We look forward to many more years and perhaps a new home where we can create even more enriching and engaging experiences for the community and the world,” said Executive Director Ellen Premack.

Premack estimates that the exhibits, educational programs and community events at the museum impacted several thousand people last year alone. Museum staff today sees Jewish and non-Jewish visitors from Colorado, and around the country and the world.

“People are hearing about us,” she says. “I’m almost to the point where I can feel comfortable calling us the preeminent Jewish destination in Denver.”