Meet Jonathan: Jewish Curatorial Associate of the Week

by Rachel Kriegsman / September 2, 2020

Jonathan Edelman made his way to DC for a job, but has stayed for the community and an exciting, growing career. With a Masters of Museum Studies in hand, he is helping launch the Capital Jewish Museum. Read on to learn more about Jonathan – from his work at CJM to his walking tours of DC on Insta.

Rachel: What brought you to the DC area and what made you stay?

Jonathan: My first job at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum brought me to DC ten days after I graduated from college. What made me stay was a community that not only welcomed me, but created spaces where I could truly be myself for the first time. I grew up a “Conservative Jew” in Kansas City. I kept Kosher, attended synagogue weekly, went to Jewish day school and Jewish summer camp, participated in USY, etc. Then senior year of high school I came out. For the rest of high school and college, I thought that I could have a queer identity and community or a Jewish identity/community, but not both. I had seen so many in my generation turn away from Jewish institutions because they did not feel welcome. I certainly felt that way too.  

But then I came to Washington, and I found that being both gay and Jewish was not an outlier, but an integral part of the broader Jewish community. First I found GLOE, the LGBTQ-focused program at the DCJCC. I was overcome with emotion sitting in the Human Rights Campaign headquarters with over 120 queer Jews and allies at the National Rainbow Seder. Then I joined Adas Israel. I still shake my head in disbelief every time I tell someone that I met my largest group of queer friends at my Conservative synagogue. 

(Nice Jewish Boys Shabbaton, January 2020)

I thought Shabbaton’s ended after my youth group days, but my favorite time of the year is the annual Nice Jewish Boys Shabbaton when 30 queer Jews spend a shabbat together at a cabin in Luray, VA. A drag show and lip sync battle after Shabbat dinner?! Never in a million years would a closeted Jew from Kansas have imagined it. But I found it, and it has rooted me so deeply in this community.

Rachel: I know it’s the most “DC” question, but what do you do now and how did you get into that?

Jonathan: When I first moved to DC, a friend gave me one piece of dating advice: “Memorize your resume, because it will be the majority of discussion on a first date.” She was right. This summer I joined the team at the Capital Jewish Museum (CJM) as their Curatorial Associate. If you haven’t heard of CJM yet, that’s okay because it doesn’t yet exist. We are in the process of designing and building the first Jewish museum in our nation’s capital as we speak. You may have seen this video of a 143 year old synagogue driving down 3rd St. NW…yeah, that’s us. 

This is an incredibly unique opportunity. I just completed my Masters in Museum Studies from GW this past spring, with a focus on exhibition development and Jewish cultural arts. But museums do not change exhibitions that often, especially in their core galleries. To be able to come in on the ground floor (quite literally), and help design a museum’s core exhibition from scratch is incredible. 

(Taking a virtual tour of the future museum, June 2019)

Rachel: That’s amazing! Can you tell me a bit more about the CJM Groundbreaking Festival?

Jonathan: First I thought virtual Seder was crazy. Then I attended a virtual wedding, graduated virtually, and even read Torah virtually. I never believed these virtual firsts would work. Somehow, though, they manage to create a feeling of connection in this time of isolation. So, as we realized we would have to do our museum groundbreaking virtually, I knew this was going to be yet another first to exceed my expectations. 

The Capital Jewish Museum is turning what would have been a small ceremony into a week-long, free virtual festival. Starting Sept. 12th, we are hosting a movie screening, a scavenger hunt, panel discussions on everything from food & social justice to the LGBTQ Jewish history in DC and so much more. The great thing about virtual programming is the way it makes content accessible to a much wider audience. And of course, there will be a virtual groundbreaking ceremony on Monday, September 14th to kick off construction of the new museum. 

Rachel: Describe your dream DC day from start to finish. 

Jonathan: Before COVID, I would often spend any free time I had at museums. I made weekly visits to the Portrait Gallery/SAAM, sitting with my favorite works and exploring new exhibits.  

My current dream day is a culmination of pandemic circumstances paired with my unapologetic nerding out over history. After everything shut down, all that remained open were the streets, so I began to walk – exploring the neighborhoods I could reach with my feet. One day as I was walking up Embassy Row, I thought to myself, there is so much history in our cityscape, so little of which I know. To learn for myself and to teach others, I began virtual walking tours on my Instagram. I do a lot of research on a subject, map out the locations and buildings involved with a story, then walk around the city and snap images. I then pair them with historic photos, add captions, and post on my story. At this point, I’ve done a few dozen. But I have a 63-page Google Doc with stories left to tell. This has become my dream day: exploring the city I love, and teaching others about its history. 

My instagram (@jedelgram) is public, so feel free to follow or just watch past walking tours in highlights on my profile. 

Rachel: As we approach the High Holidays, is there something you’re especially looking forward to or excited about?

Jonathan: The sermons. The pandemic has brought a lot of uncertainty to what the future will look like. I always found comfort in the sermons, especially given by the clergy at Adas. But I am especially looking forward to learning from and reflecting with them on what it means to bring in a new year right now. Also, I’m excited for my birthday, which is on Rosh Hashanah. 

(This synagogue has seen a lot in its 144 year history, but I bet this is its first pandemic selfie)

Rachel: Do you have a Jewish role model who inspires you?

Jonathan: Cyrus Adler. In 1887, Cyrus Adler became the first person in the US to earn a PhD in “Semitics.” A few months later, he took his degree to Washington, joining the staff of the United States National Museum, known today as the Smithsonian Institution. Adler saw the museum as one of the most powerful tools in combating antisemitism prevalent in 19th century America. By collecting and exhibiting Judaica and developing Jewish studies as a scientific discipline, he believed he could squash negative stereotypes and gain acceptance for Jews as equal and respected participants in American society. By showing the richness of Jewish culture, visitors could see with their own eyes a more authentic view of the Jewish people. I got into the museum world because I saw it as a powerful tool to break down barriers to education, entertainment, and most importantly, each other. I want to be like Cy. 

Also, of course, our queen mother Barbra Streisand. 

(Working with the film collection at the USHMM archival storage facility)

Rachel: If you could live anywhere else in the world for a year, where would you live and why?

Jonathan: Berlin. I had the opportunity to visit the city during my gap year program and instantly fell in love. All I knew of Berlin were historic images from WWII but the modern city is a progressive metropolis. The Jewish community is thriving, LGBTQ life is absolutely fabulous, and oy, the museums are outstanding! I would spend a year there just to do all the museums. 

Rachel: Complete this sentence – “When Jews of DC Gather…”

Jonathan: …we simultaneously play the Jewish geography and “so what do you do” game all while either looking for a spouse or trying to set up friends who we will die on a hill believing are perfect for one another. 


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