Skirball Cultural Center: A Good Place for Everyone
You can’t understand the history of the United States without understanding the immigrant story. This is the idea that motivated Dr. Uri Herscher to establish the Skirball Cultural Center.
The Herscher family arrived in San Jose, California in the mid 1950s from Germany, hoping to start a new life during a turbulent time. As a German-Jewish refugee, Herscher understood what it felt like to search for a safe, welcoming space – one that encouraged cultural appreciation while also nurturing the value of community.
“I think that American Jews quickly find a common cause with so many other Americans because – like the rest of America – many of us are the product of relatively recent immigration,” says Jessie Kornberg, President and CEO of the Skirball.
The Skirball focuses on Jewish values of welcoming the stranger, honoring memory, and pursuing justice (among others). Despite its Jewish roots, founder Herscher was adamant that the Skirball was going to be a space of welcome regardless of race or religious belief. He described his vision as simply “a good place for everyone.”
Part museum, part community space, the Skirball has grown into a place for cultural appreciation of all kinds. From live music from the Mexican rock group Quetzal to screenings of films implicated in the Hollywood Red Scare, the Skirball aims to tell the American story by engaging and showcasing work from diverse communities. Herscher felt that “centering diversity” was an important part of the American story – a reflection of his own immigrant roots and now a continuing representation of the immigrant population and growing cultural community throughout California, Hersher’s adopted home.
“The immigrant is an important figure here at the Skirball and continues to be very important. Especially in a place like Los Angeles County, where most people live with someone in their household who was born in another country,” says Kornberg.
Beyond welcoming and pursuing justice, the Skirball seeks to offer a deeper and more instructive exploration of American history for its visitors.
“At the Skirball, we talk a lot about learning as a value. A lot of the time, we are talking about learning from the past even if we intend to be different in the future. The reality is that most of the time when we say ‘pursuing justice,’ that is code for pursuing change,” explains Kornberg.
For Herscher, pursuing change meant understanding the lessons of our history. He hoped that by displaying artifacts from the past, visitors would appreciate their role in building a more just future. This would be a space that said: We are the United States – Who do we want to be?
Each year since its inception in the 1980s, the Skirball has found new ways to engage the Los Angeles community in answering this question. The exhibitions attract more than half a million visitors annually, 15,000 to 30,000 of which are young students. As part of their mission to promote education and protect a more just future, the Skirball attempts to fully subsidize all field trip materials for the schools that visit. From admissions fees, teaching materials, to actually hiring and paying for the buses, the Skirball prioritizes giving these schools access to hands-on learning. This is especially important considering that 90% of schools that visit the Skirball are from low-income districts.
Philanthropic support plays a big role in supporting access to education at the Skirball and providing memorable learning experiences for its visitors. Donor funding makes it possible to subsidize transport and teaching materials but also makes it possible to create engaging lessons like the Archaeology Dig.
The Dig is one of the Skirball’s most popular attractions. It is a replica archaeological dig site, fitted with an outdoor classroom and six different pits that simulate what it is like to discover artifacts from ancient cultures.
“The Dig is about giving these students a real way to see that each of our communities is built on foundations that date far, far earlier than anyone we know in our lives. We want to show that we are a product of our past and understand that what we are doing right now is going to leave an impact on the earth and the people who live here after we are gone,” says Kornberg.
The team at the Skirball understands that in order to champion progressive values, we have to bridge the gap between the modern and the ancient. The Dig shows students that reflecting on the past does not have to be a somber exercise, but one rich with the joy of discovery.
“Our mission at the Skirball is to create a sense of shared humanity in order to build a more just society,” says Kornberg. “We don’t think we have all the answers, but we provide a space to think about these big questions. How do we honor memory? How do we pursue justice?”
The answer: In order to champion progressive values, you have to create a space where children and adults, born-residents, immigrants, naturalized citizens, and international visitors all feel welcome. As Dr. Uri Herscher said, we need a “good place for everyone.”
Vice President, Advancement: Jocelyn Tetel
The Skirball mission is deeply rooted in Jewish heritage and inspired by its values. Over time, six of these values have emerged for us as the most essential, as developed by our founder, Uri D. Herscher, through study of ancient texts.
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Community, connection, and exploration are strong values for me. I find all this and more at the Skirball. I have so many heartfelt memories here: interacting with young feminists at a Gloria Steinem talk, joining a multicultural Seder, and seeing a youth chorus perform with professional musicians are just a few that come to mind. I’m also an enthusiastic participant in Skirball classes. I especially love the book, movie, and current events discussion groups. I come back time and again for the rich content and friendly community these classes provide.
The Ahmanson Foundation
The Herb Alpert Foundation
Bank of America
Department of Cultural Affairs,
City of Los Angeles
The Ella Fitzgerald
Engaging the Senses Foundation
The Rosalinde and Arthur
The Diana and Guilford Glazer
The Morris A. Hazan
Bob and Nita Hirsch
Los Angeles County
Department of Arts & Culture
The National Endowment
for the Arts
Ralph M. Parsons Foundation
Specialty Family Foundation
Dwight Stuart Youth Fund
The Flora L. Thornton