Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Some Of My Best Visitors Are Chassidim

As is well known, Beit Shemesh is home to a large number of charedim, including the most extreme branches of chassidim. These are people whose worldview and values are very, very far removed from my own. They are anti-Zionist, anti-science, anti-rationalist, etc., etc.

But they are some of my favorite visitors to The Biblical Museum of Natural History!

It's true that the chassidic visitors present a challenge. We can't show them our short movie about the lion in the Torah, since movies of any kind are unacceptable for them. And the chassidic kids are often very, um, leibedig. I was once watching one of our guides give a tour to some chassidic families; as he put an animal back in its cage and then turned back to the group, one of the kids ran behind him, opened the cage, and took the animal out again!

But on the other hand, it is such a pleasure to watch their reactions to the exhibits. All the guides agree that, as much as everyone loves the museum, there is no other group which appreciates everything as much as the chassidim.

Chassidim are so utterly fascinated by absolutely everything in the museum! Even something as simply as a baby tortoise is a source of endless delight. They want to blow every single shofar in our vast collection. They stare mesmerized into the faces of the taxidermied animals. They want to touch and hold every single egg and skull and hoof. They are thrilled to touch all of our live animals - not only the super-exotic ones, but even common species. And as for the snakes, symbol of evil in the Torah - they can't get enough of them!

The reason for this is very simple - Israeli chassidim have never seen anything like this before. Of course nobody has ever seen anything quite like our museum, but at least other visitors have seen animals before (albeit not as close-up as at the museum), on television or at the zoo. But chassidim haven't. They've never seen National Geographic (unlike the litvishe charedim, who have seen mehadrin versions of National Geographic documentaries on DVDs). And many of them don't go to the zoo in Jerusalem, because it is open on Shabbos. Our museum therefore presents the only opportunity for them to see the amazing world of animals - and the Torah significance of each and every exhibit is an added bonus.

Unfortunately, we really don't get many chassidic visitors. In general, very, very few of our visitors are charedi, and even less are chassidic. With Anglos, this is to some extent the result of the name Natan Slifkin, even though there is absolutely nothing controversial about the museum and I don't even give most of the tours to these groups. But Israelis have never heard of me, so why do hardly any Israeli charedim and chassidim visit?

The sad answer is that they simply can't afford it. While the enormous costs of developing and running the museum are heavily subsidized by private donors, we still have to charge admission. It's not very much - the guided tour costs 40 NIS for adults, 30 NIS for children aged 4-17, and there are discounts for groups. But this is simply beyond the reach of most Israeli charedi and chassidic families. Many of the schools, talmudei Torah and chadarim likewise cannot afford to visit, even though we offer them major discounts. Especially after adding the cost of transportation, if they ever do trips, it is only to places that are free.

Oh well. Those that are able to visit have a wonderful experience, and it's also a wonderful experience for us. While I don't lead the tours for Israeli groups, I usually try to be around - I love watching their faces, and I also enjoy shmoozing with them after the tour. These are people with whom I have so little in common, and with whom I differ very strongly on issues that are extremely important to me, and who wouldn't even look at me if they knew who I am, and yet we can have a really enjoyable conversation about animals and Torah.

During one tour for a local cheder, the rebbe noticed me standing at the back. He figured out that I'm the person who created the museum, and he came over to talk to me. He said, "If you made this place, you must have a really interesting life-story! Perhaps you'd like to share it with our talmidim?" I smiled and politely declined, as I murmured to myself, "Let's not go there!"


  1. This sounds like an opportunity for marketing / price discrimination.

    DEFINITION of 'Price Discrimination' A pricing strategy that charges customers different prices for the same product or service. In pure price discrimination, the seller will charge each customer the maximum price that he or she is willing to pay.

    That means getting more haredim through the door by giving them a discount. Put coupons in the newspapers they read. Hand out coupons in their shuls. Give a discount to anyone who can say If they paid half price (maybe even less for kids), it would still be worthwhile for you and for them. March them through the gift shop on their way out.

    Give a discount one day for anyone who can recite the bracha for seeing amazing animals.

    Don't say "oh well." This is a merchandising opportunity.

  2. Things are a little different in the States. Every zoo in the metropolitan New York City area is jam-packed with Chassidish visitors during Chol HaMoed Pesach. One year it rained, so my family opted to go to the Museum of Natural History instead. So did the Chassidim. In an unforgettable scene that I often talk about, two of the children (without their parents, and perhaps without their approval) wandered into a room with a display of two hominids. One of the children pointed to them and said, "Dus iz Udum un dus iz Chava."

  3. "Perhaps you'd like to share it with our talmidim?"


    In Boro Park, the Liozna Rebbe(R. Shaul Shimon Deutsch), has a museum which hopefully will stay open for Chasidim and others.

  4. Very beautiful post!
    How Ironic that the people who appreciate your museum the most, visit it the least. Just a thought – if you made DVD’s of the different Torah related animals with introductions and explanations you could reach a much larger audience, especially catering to those from the USA who physically can’t visit your museum. This may boost cash flow to the museum as well……..always good to have diverse sources of revenue…..perhaps similar to what the Living Torah Museum has done.

  5. I noticed the same thing when Chassidish kids look at municipal workers doing their job, or really anything they don't always see. they're very curious about everything, and ask all sorts of questions.

    1. That observation always sparks a debate over whether this is a good thing ("See, they still have the ability to innocently enjoy the little things in life") or a bad thing ("they are starved for anything of any interest") I tend to see the former as a nice byproduct of the latter.

  6. This post fills me with tears. I feel so bad for the masses of Chassidish children, not only for the self-induced and self-perpetuated Cycle of poverty, but because of the deprivation of the children from the beauties of this world. Mah rabu maasecha, Hashem? This is part of Torah too. Come and live it.

    1. I don't think charedi life is so bleak. Around 15 years ago, I took my son to a exhibit of exotic animals (snakes, scorpions, various lizards, rodents, etc.) in Meah Shearim on Chol HaMoed. The animals were owned by a certain Charedi man named Shaya. He gave explanations about the animals in Hebrew and Yiddish. It was an itinerant exhibit--he would take his animals around Israel. It wasn't intended to be part of the landscape of Meah Shearim.

      Still, I assume that it was very hard to maintain such an exhibit, having to be a sort of Noah, worrying about providing such a wide variety of animals their own particular diet. That's probably why I haven't seen ads for such exhibits recently.

  7. They love the museum because it's the "heileger beis hakosos" effect.

  8. Perhaps you'd like to share it with our talmidim?" I

    Make up an artscroll version of your life. They'll never know.

  9. "Many chassidim don't go to the zoo, because it is open on Shabbos."

    Are you sure about that? That a)chassidim don't go to the zoo, and b) that the reason is because it's open on Shabbos? That sounds a little strange. It's for sure not true anywhere else, as someone noted.

    1. They told me that themselves.
      The Bronx Zoo is not run by Jews!

  10. They're limited in the number of "kosher" family entertainment venues. Your museum fills that demand.

  11. Good thing they don't know that you think they are whores. Is their entrance fee Esnan Zonah?


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