You don't have to be Jewish to enjoy the Jewish Children's Museum. Although much less famous than that other Brooklyn Children's Museum (which happens to be located just a short walk away), the Jewish Children's Museum is the biggest institution of its kind in the U.S., and opened back in 2004. And yet my family and I had never been, a real shame (or shonda as we say in Yiddish).
Last month my kids and I finally made it to the museum and it was well worth the schlep. We originally intended to stay only an hour or so, but ended up spending almost four hours, there was just so much to see, do and try—including an indoor mini-golf course. Like a traditional children's museum, the displays are interactive and educational, the notable difference being that they all relate to Jewish history and culture in some way. And while there are certainly other places where you can learn about Jewish culture in NYC, the Jewish Children's Museum is the only spot that engages kids in such a fun, hands-on way.
We began our journey on the fourth floor with a Voyage Through Jewish History, an interactive installation that's a great introduction to Jewish culture for visitors of all backgrounds. My kids got to meet Patriarch Abraham and the Matriarch Sarah and listen to them talk about life in the desert. They fed a thirsty camel from a well, traced the Exodus through the Sinai Peninsula, built their own miniature tabernacle, played a virtual King David's harp, brought down the Walls of Jericho, picked fruit, ground grains, danced the Hora and peered (God-like from above) into a House of Study. There was even a water race, the kind you might see at a carnival, that taught about the native fruits and vegetables of ancient Israel.
Tragically, any Voyage Through Jewish History must include a section on the Holocaust. Since the museum is aimed at children as young as two, the subject is treated so obliquely that families can decide for themselves how much background they want to fill in. There is a display where kids can peer through cracks in planks and listen to the tale of a pair of Jews running away and taking a Torah with them ("Forget the Torah," my son urged. "Just run!"). There are no graphic or disturbing images here. Older children will understand and younger ones shouldn't be scared. On this floor there is also a section on 20th century Jewish immigration to Israel, and a replica of the Western Wall, where you can do like the natives and write a secret message or wish to stick in the cracks.
The museum's third floor is dedicated to Exploring Jewish Life. The 6 Days of Creation section includes realistic, life-size animals to climb and a play telescope to ponder the cosmos. There's also a Noah's Ark play area, complete with ball pit, slide and yak. To mark the weekly Day of Rest, there's a massive Shabbat dinner table with towering candles, a huge wine glass, a challah you can climb inside of, and matzo balls bigger than a child's entire body. Other Jewish holiday displays include a birthday party for Rosh Hashanah, a reenactment of God giving the Torah on Mount Sinai, a matching game of doors and keys for Sukkot, a Hanukkah broadcasting booth, an olive press and a virtual archery game for Lag B'Omer.
There's also a room devoted to good deeds where kids can make "Get Well" cards to be delivered to local hospitals. Plus a a game devoted to respecting your parents and teachers (love that!), and a demo of how quickly and destructively gossip spreads via a classic Norman Rockwell drawing.
The third floor exhibit my kids loved best was the mock kosher supermarket complete with a model kitchen that has separate sets of dishes, pots, cabinets, sinks and refrigerators for milk and meat products. The most thrilling part? You get to run the cash register and scan your own purchases.
Next, we headed to the lower level for arts and crafts. My two sons tried decoupage for the first time, while my daughter chose to decorate Styrofoam shapes with pins and sequins. Afterward, we participated in a live game show (signs on the walls welcomed us to "Spiel of Fortune" and "Jewpardy") in which my kids competed against another family in a matching game (no knowledge of Hebrew or Judaism required).
Finally, it was time to finish our visit with a trip to the fifth floor Gallery of Games, which included a climbing wall and mini-golf. The climbing wall represented a Jewish History Discovery Trek, while each hole in the mini-golf course was a stage of Jewish life. Even though we spent most of our morning at the Jewish Children's Museum, we still didn't get to see and do everything on offer. You could easily make a whole day of it.
The Jewish Children's Museum is located at 792 Eastern Parkway near Kingston Avenue in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. Admission is $13, $10 for seniors and free for children under 2. Open-year round: Monday-Thursday 10am-4pm, Sunday 10am-5:30pm, closed on Friday and Saturday.
Find out about other NYC Jewish Museums in our Museum Guide.