“Working together, focusing on programs like this that foster discourse, build empathy within communities and encourage participation.”
Dr. Sol Davis, Executive Director, Jewish Museum of Maryland
Sol Davis is the new executive director of the Jewish Museum of Maryland. He began in this position January 2021.
Dr. Davis comes to this role from a Jewish community perspective, more than a museum background, even though he has both. “I came into museum work through work with the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona, first through the Coalition of Jewish Education, then through the Jewish Community Relations Council and then to the Jewish History Museum where I served as executive director for 6 years. It’s all within the arena of Jewish communal work. I feel that I have an interdisciplinary background. I’m an educator. My doctoral studies are in educational philosophies. I’ve taught everything from sixth grade through graduate level seminars. So, I bring all of that interdisciplinary background into the position. I also bring in all of the inspiration that I’ve inherited from just watching what my grandparents and my parents do, and their commitments to Jewish communal work.”
Sol feels blessed with many mentors. His primary mentor is Stu Mellan, former CEO of the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona. “When I started working there in 2007, I was just a young boychik and had been a middle school teacher. Stu really believed in me. I came in with no nonprofit background, but I was an educator in whom he saw promise. He cultivated me. I became the director of the Jewish Community Relations Council. In that role I was immersed in the public affairs and social action work of a Federation and became a primary community face of the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona.”
Stu Mellan, now retired, serves as Sol’s professional coach and they speak or text almost every day. “There literally isn’t a day where I don’t draw on Stu’s lessons. They’re so applicable. I learned how to do this work with his mentorship. And I’m so grateful for that. And there are many others as well. Like people who’ve been board chairs, or colleagues. I would also say, when I was in the director position at the museum in Tucson, the people who I hired were also teachers for me. They were both my colleagues and my teachers.”
Sol says there are many similarities between the Tucson Jewish History Museum and the Jewish Museum of Maryland. “They’re both museums that have historic synagogue buildings as anchor spaces on their campuses and both are adjacent to downtown. These features provide tremendous opportunity for building, activating and reactivating the relationships with the communities in which we are positioned. I think there’s a tremendous amount of potential for Jewish community work, but also doing relationship building within the Jewish community and between the Jewish community, the neighborhood, and the broader community.”
When asked “Do you feel that it’s the exhibitions that attract people or is it the space itself?” Sol responded, “COVID is a major barrier right now because we can’t really reactivate a museum space without being in it. I think the potency of these two temple buildings is greater when you’re inside of them or standing in front of them. That’s a challenge. Still, I think all of those things, both the temple buildings and exhibits, can also help to be relationship builders. It just depends on how we stage it and what our practice is.
“I’m less interested in exhibits that are like infotainment and information dumps, which so many exhibits are. They just overwhelm you with information. I want to do more community-based and social practice that’s generating the content inside of the exhibit from a broad range of people and perspectives in the community. And then, once that material is in place in an exhibition, again, actively entering into dialogue with communities. Rather than telling them what they’re seeing, using it as basically a point of departure for exploration, together. Mutual exploration– Taking away and dismantling the authoritative and authorship roles of a museum and using it more of a space of mutual learning and community building.”
Speaking of what specific Jewish values inform his leadership, Sol explained, “My leadership is deeply rooted in Jewish values and Jewish practice. I remember, during the search process, the prophetic message, ‘Tzedek, tzedek tirdof’ [Justice, justice you shall pursue, Deut. 16:20] was the concluding slide in my presentation to the search committee. Pursuing justice is at the front of our work. There’s Tikun Olam (always trying to do the repair work), also Teshuvah (coming back and trying to repair harms that have been committed). I think that repair of the world work is so critical. I think those are very useful frameworks within the national reckoning that’s happening right now around this country’s history of white supremacy and the ongoing force of white supremacy in this country. So those are guiding frameworks. I also want to bring Chesed (loving kindness) into the work and because it is so urgent in this moment and always. Pikuach Nefesh (saving a life), is especially guiding our decisions around this pandemic, within which we are operating.”
“Developing my own adaptive leadership skills during the pandemic has been essential. For example: I still have colleagues here whom I have I’ve not yet met in person, and I’ve been here for 10 months. I’m focusing on developing the culture of the workplace and really trying to infuse those Jewish values into the work culture. That’s a big piece, and it’s very challenging to do that when you’re mediated through the Zoom screen all the time. But the other challenging things for me are the many more layers of administrative work. It’s not sexy or exciting to talk about, but I’m really trying to sharpen my administrative skills because there’s a lot of such work that goes into running this particular museum.”
Sol is very proud of the Jewish Museum of Maryland’s current featured program, ‘A Fence Around the Torah: Safety and Unsafety in Jewish Life.’
“It’s the first full project that I’ve implemented here, and it exemplifies the Jewish values and practice goals I have outlined. This program series benefits so much from the work of Liora Ostroff, our Curator in Residence. Working together, Liora and I are focusing on programs like this that foster discourse, build empathy within communities and encourage participation. The process has been guided by a participatory practice, and a community-based practice, including diverse members of the community to be part of the curatorial team. That team is selecting the what and how of our program rather than relying on our staff to choose an already existing exhibition out of a catalog of traveling exhibits. We wanted to bring in all those community perspectives, not just choosing them ourselves. We are doing that together with others and building relationships through the work. It’s a really good example of trying to put a participatory practice into play. And it’s a big departure from the presentations to which people are accustomed. So it’s not smooth sailing. There’s a lot of choppiness and turbulence. Sometimes it’s messy, a struggle. And, we’re also trying to bring rigor into that experimentation, and developing new practices while deepening existing practices.”
“Together with the communities we serve, we are lifting up the role of this museum in repairing the world, doing justice, repairing harms committed, evoking loving kindness, while preserving life.”