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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!"