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Family Mini Tours at the Jewish Heritage Museum

Shariee Calderone

Part of the new series, Spotlight on Innovative Models in Jewish Family Engagement

We all know museums offer a tremendous amount of educational value to families in the community, but when was the last time you heard of a Holocaust museum giving tours to 3-year olds and their families? And why would they even want to?

The answer is really the evolution of an engagement idea dreamed up during a summer lunch in August 2013 between myself, Betsy Aldredge, Lisa Safier, and Abby Lembersky from the Museum of Jewish Heritage (MJH) in NYC. Betsy, Lisa and Abby are not museum educators, but instead they represent Media Relations, Marketing, and Public Programs at the museum respectively. We’re an unlikely group to be meeting considering most of my professional time is spent with Jewish early childhood educators and Jewish community leaders, however I had gotten to know the “museum ladies” through their participation in the Coalition of Family Engagement Innovators, which is a network of educators who are reaching and engaging families in creative and innovative ways in and outside of Greater NY. And when we met, the museum was beginning to do just that, in large part because they received a grant from UJAs Beginning Jewish Families Taskforce.

It was during this summer lunch that Betsy, Lisa, Abby and I discussed the success of their new family programs, which to date were beginning to attract over 100 at a time for New Families New Traditions  (reaching 0-3 year olds and their caregivers) and 3X that amount for their MJH Kids family concerts (appropriate for children ages 3-8). We talked about the diversity of their neighborhood, the benefits of being supported by UJA, the marketing that had been developed, and other factors that were making these programs attractive to families in lower Manhattan. But we didn’t stop there. Our conversation uncovered a larger vision to connect these new families to the institution in ways they hadn’t yet attempted to do. Success was there in numbers, but all three wanted to create richer engagement, utilize more of the resources they felt they had on hand at the museum, and develop deeper relationships between family participants and the institution itself. This is when the idea for MJH’s Family Mini Tours was born.

Here’s what I can remember from our conversation; a very unofficial list of initial programming strategies for the tours:

1. Offered as an option to small groups of families at a time, ahead of, or after, popular programs.

2. Be short in length and focused on one particular theme.

3. Elevate specific museum artifacts that can emphasize or address values that parents can easily relate to.

4. And make it fun, age appropriate, and engaging for the littlest ones.

Six months later, and a lot of dedication on their part, the museum is now connecting their outreach and marketing efforts with their educational efforts in a completely new way. Below is an inside look at a tour I recently attended which focused on Tu B’Shevat (New Year of the Trees).  Museum Educator Beth Slepian led the tour which brought families through the museum stopping at five specific spaces. Although short, this family program hit upon each of the four programming strategies listed above, and probably a few more. Some of the pictures below are blurry, my apologies, they were taken with my iPad which doesn’t like movement and this was a fast-paced tour.


A small group of families elect to leave a crafting session to participate in a mini tour. They are greeted by Slepian, who quickly adds energy and excitement. While walking, Slepian begins to engage everyone in talking about trees and the upcoming holiday of Tu B’Shevat



First stop – Calligraphy style sketch of a family tree. Slepian points out how ‘family trees’ grow as our families grow and that the tree represents all the people in our family that we love, even great aunts and uncles that we don’t see very often. The children are fascinated by the small print and the branches.



Second stop – Large fabric mural depicting various agricultural seasons and holidays (or perhaps it was only Sukkot, I can’t remember). Slepian pointed to all of the trees in the mural and focused attention on how the Jewish people care for and value trees throughout the seasons. But it wasn’t until she pointed above her heads that we all realized we were now in/under a Sukkah. This too fascinated the children and parents.



Third stop – A picture of an Israeli boy hugging a tree planted in Israel. It’s a small picture but Slepian keeps the conversation focused. I notice parents trying to absorb some of the other items in the room.



Fourth stop – A tool used to excavate and plant trees. The children loved seeing the heavy object and pretending to dig their own holes for planting trees.

MJH 10

MJH 11

Fifth and final stop – In front of a series of windows overlooking Andy Goldsworthy’s living memorial Garden of Stonesa “contemplative space meant to be revisited and experienced differently over time as the garden matures.” The garden features huge rounded rocks which happen to have trees planted  in the middle. The conversation here was my favorite because it stemmed from the children’s own curiosity about why the trees were growing right through the rocks and if they were even real. Slepian prompted them to come to their own conclusions then shifted their attention to the timekeeper, which is a screen connected to a time lapse camera that takes and stores photographs of the garden each day. All it took was a bit of scrolling back a few months for the children to see summer (trees with green leaves) turn into fall (with brown leaves) turn into winter and the recent snow we had (bare trees surrounded by a blanket of white).

gardens of stone_Jewish Heritage

While the tour continues to be tweaked, and they are looking new for ways to incorporate student volunteers to lead the tours, I’m completely impressed how this vision has been actualized by those leading the process.  Here are some of the contributing factors to its success that I observed:

  • Attention towards making families feel welcomed and invited. Many of the parents were completely new to the building and did not know there was a tour being offered but were guided gently by the educator to participate.
  • The comfort level of the staff to let those who wanted to go on the tour go, and those who wanted to stay behind to finish their craft stay.
  • The educator’s knowledge of this age group and ways to make the exhibits and the topic interesting for both adults and children.
  • The planning of the tour. Only very specific artifacts from the collection were focused on and each connected to the topic of trees in a different way. It was all very deliberate and intentional.

Ideas for improvement:

  • Give parents a sticker at the end that says, “I went on a Mini Tour of the Museum today”. Or something like that. Let them help with the advertising.
  • Take a pictures and document what’s happening so it can showcases on the website or in a family newsletter/email.
  • Bring parents back into the craft room so the other families can see them come back happy and engaged. Perhaps that will be enough to encourage them to participate next time.
  • Ask parents for feedback on the experience. Capture quotes and share this back with the museum leaders who have supported the idea.