By Alanna Berman
The House of Israel, one of Balboa Park’s 32 international cottages, has a new look and new energy about it — things it hasn’t seen in more than six decades. Last month, hundreds of park-goers celebrated the grand re-opening of the little symbol of Israel amidst a neighborhood of other nations. A four-year-long process of planning, fundraising and construction has brought the formerly simple, bare-bones interior of the 1940s into the 21st century, better educating visitors about Israel’s achievements and history that span thousands of years.
“[The renovation] shifts the ambiance of the house from a view of Israel as it was conceived by American Jews in the 1940s and 1950s to a quality now conceived by Israelis for contemporary Israel,” says house vice president Arnold Flick of the changing perspective behind the house’s interior displays and design. “We wanted to present to our public Israel as it is today, and we wanted to modernize the impression of Israel [visitors got].”
Flick, who has been a volunteer at the House of Israel for almost five years, says the previous interior left something to be desired for its more than 15,000 annual visitors.
Now, visitors have a more authentic Israeli experience when they visit. The new cottage is complete with an updated kitchen out of which latkes and coffee are served every Sunday, a wall made of Jerusalem stone generously donated by the Fathers Church in La Mesa, and a flatscreen monitor with an interactive display about the people and landscape of Israel. The cottage is now something of which all San Diegans — Jewish or not — can be proud.
The 450-square-foot space was originally designed to present the history and culture of Israel while also being a place families and friends could gather and feel comfortable, and that goal has not changed. Now, however, the hope is that the updated interior will bring more visitors and volunteers.
“Our purpose is to simply show Israel to the visiting public without engaging in proselytizing for Judaism, without involving ourselves in the many conflicts,” Flick says, “but rather simply showing Israel as it is: the diversity of its population, its achievements, its growth and the hopes for its future.”
Run entirely by volunteers, the house earns most of its revenue from annual membership fees of $25 per person, along with a few personal annual donations. Active membership remains at about 1,000 individuals who support everything from the coffee and latkes to the docent duties each Sunday and on special event days.
Members have long hoped and planned for a renovation, but until recently it was financially impossible. Last year, board members set out to raise the necessary funds to complete the upgrades. Jack Maisel, who operates his own community cultural organization, A Culture of Peace, began working with the board to meet this financial goal after attending an event at the cottage.
“I was embarrassed, frankly,” he says of the cottage’s previous interior. “We want the house to be alive, and eventually we plan to have more community events here, outside of the regular Sunday hours.”
In its previous state “drab and dated,” according to Maisel, regular events seemed impossible. It didn’t resemble the Israel he knows and loves, he says.
“The house is basically Israel’s cultural consulate, where the technology, history and archaeology [of the country] meet,” he says. “[Following renovations], our hope is that we can make the house available to all organizations, groups and agencies at no cost. We also hope that the house will bring those unaffiliated members of the community into the fold, so that if you aren’t a member of a synagogue or the JCC, or your kids don’t go to a Jewish school, you still have an access point to the community.”
Flick shares in the sentiment but notes that more than attracting Jewish visitors, the non-Jewish population is just as important. Unlike most Jewish organizations that speak only to other Jews, or dedicated museums that attract members of the Jewish population, the House of Israel often draws curious visitors who aren’t Jewish or know little to nothing about Israel.
“Visitors to the house, and the Houses of Pacific Relations [the governing board of all of the international cottages] interact in a one-on-one experience with volunteer docents, and I think that this is a powerful instrument to present Israel to a curious public who is uninformed, as there is in the country,” he says of the many non-Jewish visitors to the house each year. “The park visitors are San Diegans, but there is also an international visitorship because of tourism, and many people come and ask questions about Israel.”
According to Flick, visitors are often shocked to learn the actual size of the country, and they’re equally interested in its population, religious diversity and spoken languages. Docents refrain from engaging in political discussions, he says, although this has never been a problem in the years Flick has been volunteering.
“The level of non-information is extremely high among our visitors, and the house serves that [informational] purpose,” he says.
A timeline of the Jewish presence in Israel from ancient to modern times has been installed in the house, because, as Flick says, “You cannot look at Israel without looking at ancient Israel.” Additionally, rotating displays pertaining to more recent innovations, like the pill camera and specialized computer chips, are now also on display.
“We completely stripped the interior, and every interior surface has been changed,” he says. “We have been gifted a wall of Jerusalem stone and serving counters made from Caesar stone from Israel. We have a flatscreen monitor for presenting information. All the display cases and the displays are new, and we expect to be adding displays on a regular basis. The posters are new, as are the kitchen and serving counters.”
In this sense, Flick says, the renovation is technically still ongoing. As modernization of the cottage progressed, additional ideas came to light, but funding is once again an issue.
“We are hoping to greatly enhance the interactive computer experience by having some small computers at stations with focused sound systems above them and with touch screen capabilities,” Flick says, “so that you can, say, touch a photo of Jerusalem and get audio related to that.”
In the meantime, other displays, like a live feed view of the Western Wall and past speeches from Israel’s prime ministers, will be on view.
But for all the good the cottage’s new displays and exibits do in the Jewish and general communities, without volunteers, the cottage itself would be non-existent. At 89 years old, Selma Menaker is not the most eldest of the volunteers, but she has been volunteering for the longest time. For more than 30 years, she and her husband have been involved with the house, sometime volunteering as little as four or five times a year, she says, but all the while staying connected to what goes on there.
“[When my husband, Alfred, and I came to San Diego] from Philadelphia, we found many friends among the other members and volunteers of the House of Israel,” she says, “and we felt a great deal of satisfaction in helping to keep the house open and talking to people and trying to advance the cause of Israel.”
The Menakers have encouraged many friends over the years to join them in supporting the cottage, and they even recruited a few current and past volunteers. Though casual recruitment like this is always helpful, Flick says he would like to someday be able to hire a volunteer coordinator who can more effectively recruit even more volunteers.
If incoming donations are consistent with past numbers, the house will continue to function at its current operational capacity, Flick says. He and Maisel both see the need for more funding to nudge the house where they would like it to be.
“If we had more volunteers, we could open for school visits during the week, which is a huge opportunity we have not tapped into,” Flick says.
Maisel, who has also been a volunteer at the house, admits it can be a challenge to to sign up volunteers, but once they do, they seem to be hooked.
“The volunteers and board members are all a caring group of people who love Israel and are seizing this opportunity together — making the house something that we can all be proud of,” he says.
Although Menaker and her husband have not recently volunteered nearly as much as they have in the past, she also understands the importance of continuing the good work that the house has done in the community.
“[This is a place where the sole purpose is] to let people know how much good has come out of Israe,l because there are too many people who do not know,” she says.
And for such a tiny cottage, the work being done is impressive.
“Our outreach is done on a one-to-one basis,” Flick says, “and we try to answer people’s questions as best we can. Visitors come in with an open mind, and more often than not, they leave with a smile.”
The House of Israel is located at the House of Pacific Relations in Balboa Park and is open every Sunday from noon-4 p.m. For information on membership or volunteer opportunities, contact Arnold Flick at email@example.com. Visit www.cottageofisrael.com for more information about upcoming events.