The Dr. Bernard Heller Museum at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) in New York was dedicated on Thursday, September 6, 2018 at 6:30 pm. The dedication of the Museum in memory of Dr. Bernard Heller is made possible by a $1.68 million naming gift by the Dr. Bernard Heller Foundation. It was the vision of Rabbi Aaron Panken, Ph.D., z”l, HUC-JR President (2014-2018) that brought forth this transformative gift, completed a few months before his untimely death.
The dedication ceremony honored the Dr. Bernard Heller Foundation for nearly 35 years of philanthropy supporting HUC-JIR and awarded Ruth O. Freedlander, Co-Trustee of the Foundation, with the American Jewish Distinguished Service Award. Laura Kruger, Curator of the Museum, was presented with the Doctor of Humane Letters, honoris causa, for her nearly 30 years of visionary curatorial leadership.
Rabbi David Ellenson, Ph.D., Interim President, stated, “It is an honor to memorialize our distinguished alumnus Dr. Bernard Heller, z”l, who was so deeply concerned with the survival of the Jewish people and with the transmission of Jewish religious and cultural heritage, with the dedication of the Dr. Bernard Heller Museum. We are enormously grateful to Ruth O. Freedlander, Co-Trustee of the Heller Foundation, who has spearheaded the Foundation’s transformative philanthropy of nearly $7.5 million over more than three decades to support our students, expand the work of our faculty, strengthen our programs, and change the face of our campuses. It is a privilege to honor Laura Kruger, the Museum’s visionary curator, whose connoisseurship, imagination, expertise, and devotion ensure that the visual interpretation of Judaism is thriving here at the College-Institute.”
The Dr. Bernard Heller Museum is a premier venue for the presentation of contemporary art exploring Jewish identity and themes through exhibitions, educational outreach, and publications illuminating Jewish history, culture, and experience. The Museum’s mission is to interpret Jewish texts and values that foster a deeper appreciation for Jewish heritage. It highlights the creativity of contemporary Israeli artists to strengthen cultural ties between North America and Israel, and enhances public education to advance Jewish identity and interfaith and multiethnic understanding. Uniquely situated within a seminary context, the Museum enriches the academic environment for students and faculty.
Since its founding in 1983 as the Joseph Gallery under the leadership of Reva Godlove Kirschberg, z”l, the Museum has mounted over 140 exhibitions at our New York campus including seminal shows for emerging artists; surveys of leading mid-career and elder artists; cutting-edge exhibitions illuminating Jewish issues, including contemporary artistic responses to the Holocaust, the history of African-American and Jewish relations, the impact of family violence reflected in the works of contemporary Israeli and American women artists, the sexuality spectrum, home and homelessness, and the current environmental crisis; landmark exhibitions establishing new directions for contemporary Jewish ceremonial art; group exhibitions reflecting new interpretations of Biblical text; and exhibitions of significant private collections, reflecting Jewish identity and consciousness, which have advanced the definition of Jewish art in the 20th century.
It has published scores of exhibition catalogs that are accessible online and preserved in major art museum and university libraries worldwide. The Museum has organized more than thirty traveling exhibitions carrying our HUC-JIR name that are presented in Jewish museums, university art galleries, synagogues, and community centers that reach communities throughout North America and beyond each year. The Museum has developed an art collection of over 2500 works spanning the 20th and 21st centuries. Docents lead adult and school groups throughout the year, and an internship program mentors highly qualified high school, college, and graduate students. During the course of the past 35 years, the Museum has offered powerful learning experiences for over a million visitors to our museum and to our travelling exhibitions.
Guiding the Museum are Director Jean Bloch Rosensaft, Curator Laura Kruger, Senior Curatorial Assistant Phyllis Freedman, Registrar Nancy Mantell, Archivist Susan Rosenstein, Research Director Rose Starr, and the Museum Advisory Committee.
The Museum’s exhibitions and publications are supported by George, z”l, and Mildred Weissman and presented by the Irma L. and Abram S. Croll Center for Jewish Learning and Culture.
Dr. Bernard Heller
Born in Kishinev, Russia, in 1897, Dr. Bernard Heller came to South Philadelphia as a child. Educated in America, he received a B.A. degree at the University of Pennsylvania in 1916, an M.A. degree in 1917 from Columbia University, and was ordained at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati in 1920. After ordination, Rabbi Heller served in Scranton, Pennsylvania, from 1920 to 1930 and became widely known for his religious, civic, and communal work. From the Scranton pulpit, he was called to serve the B’nai B’rith Hillel Foundation at the University of Michigan, where he was awarded a Ph.D. in 1932. He was also awarded an honorary Litt.D. degree from The Jewish Theological Seminary of America.
In 1949, Dr. Heller was named Director of Restitution of Jewish Cultural Reconstruction, Inc., the agency charged with restoration of cultural property seized by the Nazis from Jewish people and Jewish institutions. From headquarters in Frankfurt-am-Main, Dr. Heller handled the distribution of the more than 30,000 confiscated volumes, many of them rare and valuable, which the Nazis had assembled for use in anti-Semitic institutes they hoped to establish after their victory. In 1951, Dr. Heller served in the only liberal Jewish congregation in India, the Progressive Union of Bombay. He maintained a life-long interest in the “B’nai Israel” of India.
Dr. Heller was appointed to the faculty of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion as Visiting Professor of Jewish Ethics and the Philosophy of Religion at the New York campus in 1952. He was the author of many articles and several books, among them Harvest of Weeds (1924); Odyssey of a Faith (1942), which won an award as one of the best religious books of that year; Epistle to an Apostate (1952); and Dawn or Dusk (1961), an analysis of German responsibilities for the Holocaust. After years of rabbinical service, Dr. Heller pursued his interests in business as one of the founders of the predecessor to the United Brands Corporation and also of the West Indies Investment Company in the U.S. Virgin Islands.
Dr. Heller was deeply concerned with the survival of the Jewish people and with the transmission of Jewish religious and cultural heritage. His life reflected his abiding interest in philosophy, Jewish thought, and scholarship. His widespread knowledge of Judaism was encyclopedic in its breadth. Dr. Heller died on May 6, 1976 in New York City. By the terms of his Last Will and Testament, Dr. Heller established the Dr. Bernard Heller Foundation for the benefit of Jewish education and for the welfare of the Jewish people in Israel. The Co-Trustees of the Dr. Bernard Heller Foundation are Ruth O. Freedlander, whose husband was a congregant of Dr. Heller’s in Michigan; Carole Weidman Nussbaum, Esq.; Meredith P. Nussbaum; and Beatrice Weidman (1994-2012).