Change of leadership at the Sydney Jewish Museum

December 8, 2021 by J-Wire Newsdesk
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Professor Gus Lehrer has retired from the presidency of The Sydney Jewish Museum after 11 years at the helm.

Gus Lehrer at the AHM

During the recent AGM, it was announced that Greg Shand is the new president.

He has played a significant role with a range of philanthropic endeavours supporting the NSW Jewish community.

During Gus’s presidency, his main priority was the financial sustainability of the museum and he ensured steps were implemented in this regard, including two very successful capital appeals.

Gus also worked on the implementation of the refurbishment program; this included the launch of the new Education Resource Centre, the redevelopment of The Holocaust exhibition, as well as the important addition of The Holocaust and Human Rights exhibition.

During Gus’s presidency, the Museum saw a significant increase in visitor numbers. This success included the Museum being a central part of the Jewish community’s interaction with the wider community.

Gus was thanked for his dedicated service during his Presidency, as well as his own family’s generous support. The Museum’s CEO, Norman Seligman, wished him every success in his future endeavours.

Greg Shand previously chaired both the JCA Allocations Committee and the JCA Building and Capital Committee.

Greg Shand

Greg and his wife Kathy adopted a strategic approach to philanthropy – notably, their support for the Museum by leading the Pillars fundraising initiative and supporting the Capital Appeal and Dimensions in Testimony project.

Greg played a major role in the establishment of the Museum’s Foundation which he chaired until the Museum AGM, and assisted in obtaining the recent significant grant from the NSW State Government.

Greg aims to continue the initiatives for the Museum to become financially self-sustaining, and to ensure the vital work in educating about the Holocaust grows.

Gus Lehrer listed some of the significant achievements during his presidency.

1. The total rebuilding of the Holocaust exhibition, in the years following the 2012 capital appeal. This was done to improve the rigor and accuracy of our narrative, as well as incorporating modern research and matters arising from the Australian war crimes legislation, such as the discovery of the massacre site at Serniki in the Ukraine. This recasting was led by Avril Alba and Konrad Kwiet, two outstanding scholars, and is today in no small measure responsible for our international reputation.

2. The nurturing and provision of a “home”, Beit Hashoah, for a large group of Holocaust Survivors, who have formed the life and soul of the museum.

3. The expansion and enhancement of our Education program, which prior to Covid 19, was running at about 30,000 students per annum.

4. The rise in standing of the SJM in the Jewish community and in the general community of the museum and its objectives.

5. The provision of a forum where more than 250 volunteers could contribute to making the world a better place.

6. A consequence of this rise in standing has been the degree of support the SJM has received over the period. Two successful capital appeals were held, which raised over $25m. Moreover, the Pillars initiative, led by Kathy and Greg Shand, has resulted in $12m of support, and has undoubtedly been influenced by the rise in standing of the SJM. Other individuals, notably Egon Sonnenschein, have also been among the SJM’s have been among the SJM’s strongest supporters.

7. This financial support, together with the establishment of the SJM Foundation, have brought the SJM to within striking distance of sustainability, notwithstanding our continuing significant annual operating deficit.

8. The establishment of a new section on Human Rights and the Holocaust. Despite sitting in potentially dangerous territory, this has proved a very valuable educational tool.

9. Our Fellowship program, which is in the context of strengthening ties with research centres in Judaism and the Holocaust.

10. The appointment of Kevin Sumption as successor to Norman Seligman, the long term CEO. As mentioned, the stellar field of candidates for the position is in itself a testament to the standing of the SJM.

At the AGM he said: “There are many other things which could be mentioned in this context, but I think these ten encapsulate the broad themes of our progress over the last 11 years.

I would like now to turn to some things which I would have liked to do, but have not had time to implement.:

1. One of the core objectives of the SJM is to de-mystify Judaism and to provide a window into the Jewish community. In that context, I would like to have created an exhibition of Jews who have made major contributions to humanity, such as Spinoza, Albert Einstein, Sigmund Freud, George Gerschwin and so on. There has been almost unanimous support for such an exhibition.

2. Human Rights is a strongly contested arena. Controversy often arises as to whose rights should receive priority. We have tried to address this by using the language of Human Responsibilities, rather than Rights. I would like to see this concept developed explicitly in our Human Rights section. Moreover we need to complete the formation of an External Human Rights advisory committee, to advise the SJM on content for the Human Rights section.

3. I would like to see some discussion in our exhibits of what I refer to as the Fundamental Contradiction. It is enshrined in our Constitution that one of our main objectives is to emphasise the uniqueness of the Holocaust in Human experience. But if we try to draw “lessons” from it, which is another of our core objectives, we attempt to abstract certain principles of human conduct. This necessarily entails comparison of the Shoah with other atrocities, and could therefore be considered to undermine its uniqueness. There are answers to this apparent contradiction, and it bears discussing in our exhibits.

4. The SJM obviously includes some references to Anti-semitism. However there is no
exhibit specifically dedicated to Anti-semitism, its history, its various forms, the recent attempt by IRAC to formulate a universally recognised definition of it, etc. I mentioned to Kevin that I was very impressed by the exhibition about Anti-semitism at the Imperial War Museum in London. In this age, with the rise of Anti-semitism, I believe that this should be made an urgent priority, perhaps in the context of Human Rights.

5. The SJM has some excellent ties with Universities and professional researchers in the Holocaust and Jewish culture. In particular, our Fellowship program and joint employment of Avril with Sydney University are in that context. I would like to expand and enhance these programs, which puts the SJM at the forefront of research, particularly into the Holocaust. It also enhances the SJM’s integrity as a source of truth on these matters.

6. There is a delicate boundary between being embroiled in controversy and acting as a forum for civil discussion. I would like to see the SJM expanding its role in the latter, not least to use its prestige as a counter to cancel culture.
When I first developed an interest in Holocaust museums in the mid 1980’s, my main motivation came from the fact that Holocaust denial had already then become one of the major instruments of Anti-semitism.

It was then, and remains, a deep belief of mine that the best counter to this in the long run is scholarship and research. However to support this, one needs community support such as the SJM enjoys, which in turn is fostered by more popular activities.”

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