Temple Beth El in Aliso Viejo will open a small museum today dedicated to educating the public about Jewish history, becoming one of only a handful of synagogues in the United States that house such an institution.
The Kershaw Museum will open with the exhibit "Triumph of Light: The Hanukkah Menorah" that features 60 menorahs -- some dating from the 18th century -- and a free lecture tonight by a scholar of the ancient Middle East.
"We were fortunate to have this beautiful space" in Temple Beth El's new $18-million building, said Norma Kershaw, who, with her husband, Reuben, endowed the museum through a family trust. "And a museum of Jewish history will be a tremendous enrichment to the culture in Orange County and beyond."
The idea for the mini-museum -- the pieces are displayed in a space about the size of a classroom -- was a collaborative effort between Rabbi Allen Krause, a history buff, and Norma Kershaw, a congregant, art historian and archeologist. She serves on the board of a variety of international organizations devoted to ancient art.
"It was just natural for me to connect with Norma," Krause said.
Kershaw brought in an expert to design the museum with professional lighting, high-quality display cases and decor appropriate for a major cultural venue. She also lined up nationally renowned speakers on Middle Eastern history and art to give lectures.
Jodi Magness, a professor of religious studies at the University of North Carolina and author of the recently released book "The Archaeology of Qumran and the Dead Sea Scrolls," will speak at 7:30 tonight on menorahs in the ancient synagogues of Israel. In December, George Bass, called the "father of nautical archeology," will tell about the artifacts found on a wrecked ship that sailed in 14th century B.C. from what is now Israel.
Plans for the museum include displaying samples of major exhibits from Los Angeles museums, including the Skirball Cultural Center.
"We're not in competition with anyone," Kershaw said. "By having a smaller version of a large exhibit, it's like giving out little hors d'oeuvres."
The temple has been promised ancient pottery on permanent loan from Skirball and Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem. Work is underway to turn an alcove outside the one-room museum into a model of a "tel," a mound that grows over centuries as successive civilizations build upon the ruins of their predecessors. On the walls will be maps of the Middle East and a historical timeline.
Krause said the temple has sent letters to public and private schools in south Orange County, inviting schoolchildren to view the exhibit.
"We look to it to be a source of Jewish knowledge for the entire Orange County community, not just for our congregation, not just for Jews," he said.
The menorahs in the inaugural exhibit were contributed by congregants and other Orange County Jews. They are large and small and made of silver, brass and tin. Some hold candles, others burn oil. A number of 2,000-year-old ceramic oil lamps -- precursors to the menorahs -- are also on display.
The eight days of Hanukkah, which begin this year Nov. 29, celebrate the rededication of the temple in Jerusalem in 165 B.C. This followed a military victory over the Syrians, who had taken control of the temple and tried to stamp out Judaism. To mark the event, one menorah candle is lighted on the first night of Hanukkah with an additional candle lighted each of the next seven nights.
Many of the menorahs come with moving stories. Holding her scratched and dinged family menorah, Irene Breisacher reminisced about how her late husband, Walter, escaped Nazi Germany with the menorah at age 16.