'The Museum is part of my life' - Margles retires after 24 years at OJMCHE

PHOTO: Outgoing Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education Executive Director Judy Margles, pictured in the museum's "Human Rights After The Holocaust" exhibit Monday, Nov. 20. Margles will retire at the end of this month after nearly a quarter century at OJMCHE's helm. (Rockne Roll/The Jewish Review)

The Jewish Review
Judy Margles has been part of the Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education since its inception. 
After initially joining the museum as an advisor and later as a board member, Margles will retire at the end of this month at the conclusion of 24 years as the executive director of Oregon’s center for Jewish Art.
When the idea for the Oregon Jewish Museum just started coming together, Margles was there, and she’s been there through expansions, relocations, and broadening of the institutions focus – every step of the way.
“There was talk in the community of building a Jewish museum,” she recalled of the project’s beginnings in the early 1990s. “I got involved just because I’m a museum worker.”
“Museum worker” has been Margles’ calling for a long time.
Margles is the youngest of four siblings, raised in rural Ontario, whose mother picked out their careers for them from an early age. All the siblings fought like crazy against this predestination, but then Margles completed an internship at the Royal Ontario Museum. She was hooked. 
“The idea of taking an object and figuring out ways to interpret it and teach someone what they can learn from this object always fascinated me,” she said. 
She studied at the University of Toronto and pursued graduate work at New York University. Along the way, she married Steve Wasserstrom, who went on to accept a position teaching Jewish Studies at Reed College, bringing Margles to Portland. On arrival, she found her position at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry.  – quite the change in subject matter from her decorative arts work at the Royal Ontario Museum.
“I used to say, ‘I’m here to humanize everything you do,’” she recalled. “I had no science background, but I was there for a decade. I did some great exhibits.”
Margles served as an advisor to the “museum without walls” and came to sit on the board while continuing to work at OMSI. When the organization’s original executive director departed in 1999, Margles decided to take the leap – she applied for and got the job. Her children, who had come to know the child-oriented OMSI as “Mom-sy,” were not thrilled. 
“I had a two-headed calf in my office, I had a moon rock,” she recalled, “and then I went to this thing that didn’t exist.”
For much of its early existence, OJM had no permanent facility. When merged with the Jewish Historical Society in 1996, it kept the society’s extensive archive in a borrowed space at the Oregon Historical Society. OJM later moved to a borrowed space in Montgomery Park, then rented space at Northwest Third Avenue and Davis Street, before moving close by into a 6,000 square foot space at Northwest 19th Avenue and Kearney Street, where the museum started to truly come into its own as an institution. 
Some of the first exhibits there were “The Power of Memory,” which displayed items from the JHS archive along with photographic interpretations, and an exhibit on Sephardic culture. There was more to come. 
“We did this exhibition just looking at car culture amongst Oregon Jews. We even had a section about German cars,” Margles recalled. “In the exhibit we actually talked about Henry Ford because, of course, he was a virulent antisemite; he brought ‘The Protocols of the Elders of Zion’ to the United States. That was a great exhibit. We did an exhibition about Mel Blanc, the voice of Bugs Bunny. We did an exhibition about the composer Ernst Bloch who lived at Agate Beach for the last 20 years of his life. We did a number of local artist exhibitions. We did some great stuff there, but it was small.”
OJM had been, in part, the brainchild of longtime Congregation Neveh Shalom Rabbi Joseph Stampfer, z”l. It adopted its current name upon merging with the Oregon Holocaust Resource Center, another organization founded by Rabbi Stampfer, along with Alice Meyer, who was also the first President of OJM. By 2012, OHRC was pursuing a merger with another local organization. A number of groups were interested, but Margles saw a union of the two groups as an essential extension of what OJM’s mission should be. 
“I felt that we had an obligation to think about teaching about the Holocaust,” she said. ‘Because if we weren’t doing it, who would?”
The merger, completed in 2014, gave the newly-dubbed OJMCHE stewardship of the Oregon Holocaust Memorial in Washington Park, the OHRC’s Speakers Bureau, a cadre of Survivors and descendants of Survivors available to speak to groups about the Holocaust, and an impetus to pursue greater Holocaust education. The museum, thanks in large part to Melanie Birnbach, Margles, notes, started pushing for the legislature to take up a mandate for Holocaust education in public schools. When the moment came, OJMCHE helped draft and advocate for the bill. The work was rewarded.
“In June of 2019. Governor Kate Brown was in our auditorium signing the bill with survivors at her side,” Margles. “Such a high point in my life. Huge accomplishment.”

Another huge accomplishment was getting OJMCHE into a permanent space of its own. Margles says that any time she would drive through Portland with her children, they would point out the buildings that OJMCHE had tried unsuccessfully to purchase. 
They had gotten close before, close enough that an architect and construction contractor had already been selected. Things finally came together in 2015 when the Museum of Contemporary Crafts was closing and the Pacific Northwest College of Art, which had been the museum’s steward for the last years of its history, was putting the building up for sale. 
Margles was in Rome on vacation when she learned of PNCA’s intent to sell. 
“We have to go home right now, we’ve got to go,” she recalled saying to her husband. “Obviously, we didn’t cut our vacation short, but I did dash off a few emails.”
PNCA told Margles that if she could come up with their asking price - $5 million – within 45 days, they would skip taking other offers and move directly to sale.
“I wasn’t grey[-haired] until then,” she recalled. 
Grey, but successful – with the purchase, with a second, smaller capital campaign to get the building ready to open in 2017 and with a campaign to raise $2.4 million to purchase the former Charles Hartman Gallery space at the southwest corner of the property and integrate it into the rest of the museum. 
“We did it because this community is extraordinary. I’m going to tear up,” Margles said. “What a blessing to work in this amazing community and have the support of this community. People really understood the importance of the Jewish community being represented with the museum. And again, go back and credit Rabbi Stampfer and Alice Meyer for understanding that.”
That expansion paved the way for OJMCHE’s newest permanent exhibit, “Human Rights After The Holocaust.” In the wake of the Holocaust, the expression “Never Again” came to prominence, but Margles realized that the kind of human rights abuses that spawned “Never Again” have, in reality, been more along the lines of “Again and Again and Again.” 
“Would we have done that exhibit 10 years ago? I don’t know,” Margles said. “But we know the more you study 1933 to 1945, and the more you understand 1945 to now, you recognize that this expression, ‘never again,’ is false.”
“Human Rights After The Holocaust” documents the successes and failures of the efforts to protect human rights around the globe since World War II. The exhibit is meant to inspire hope while also being honest about the horrors that have happened around the world – including here in the United States. 
“As obligated as we felt in 2014 to expand our regional lens by educating about the Holocaust, I feel the same obligation that the story didn’t end in 1945,” Margles continued. “And all the rhetoric, in a positive way, that came out after 1945; ‘crimes against humanity,’ the word ‘genocide,’ the human rights declaration, all these came out to try and put some framing around this most horrific 20th century event. And yet, there’s still unspeakable genocide.”
In a perfect world, Margles explained, “Human Rights After The Holocaust” would become a relic of a meaner time in human history. In reality, Margles hopes the exhibit inspires each person to something, however little it may be, to make the world better and move toward that better world. 
“Change can happen,” she said, “and we all have the ability to make change.”
Margles will be making a change in her lifestyle very soon. In addition to her own retirement, Wasserstrom will be retiring from Reed College at the end of the year. She’s looking forward to traveling together, reading, and doing nothing. 
“The Museum is part of my life, and I want to stay connected in whatever way makes sense,” she said. “I think until you actually retire, you have no sense of what it’s going to look like. But I do have a stack of books that I hope I just lie on the couch and read.”
In addition to her gratitude for the Jewish community the museum serves, Margles also expressed appreciation for the arts community in Portland that has helped OJMCHE to thrive. 
“It’s just a phenomenal arts community. I’ve had wonderful collegial relationships with my fellow directors, fellow curators, fellow museum people,” she said. “I think the relationships we forged even more during the pandemic have stayed.”
Those colleagues feel similarly – the Western Museum Association presented Margles with their 2023 Leadership Award. 
“We ask visitors the question, how do you turn hope into action? As I prepare to end my tenure as OJMCHE’s director, I urge all of all of us to create opportunities that testify to our hope so that we can all work together to create our better future,” she told the WMA’s annual conference upon receiving her award. 
Even as she reflects on her career and the lengthy list of exhibits she’s assembled, Margles is not fully done yet.
“I still want to do  an exhibit about the history of the Jewish ghetto, starting with the Venetian ghetto and then looking at ghettos in the United States,” she said.
After a career like Margles’, its understandably hard to take the museum out of the director, even if the director will no longer be at the museum every day.


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