Watching her granddaughters at the Tampa Jewish Community Center on Sunday morning, Marilyn Wittner beamed with pride. The girls, Victoria, 10, and Marlee, 6, were learning a Hebrew song. At first they stumbled through the Hebrew words, Yada'im Lema'ala, which loosely translated means hands in the air. But by the end, grandmother and granddaughters were all smiles, proud to have perfected the chorus and their dance moves.
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The family was among the first visitors on opening day at the Jewish Discovery Museum, an interactive children's center that promotes Judaism through art and play.
"I brought them because we're Jewish, and I wanted them to see all the wonderful things that they have to offer at their level," Marilyn Wittner said. "Both of these children go to museums a lot but not ones with a Jewish focus."
The discovery center is the brainchild of community center and Jewish Federation director Emilie Kuperman and Alissa Fischel, the center's director of youth and family planning.
One of only a handful of Jewish discovery centers in the nation, the exhibit features interactive components such as Noah's Ark Theater, painting and weaving at Joseph's Diverse Dreamcoat and Mr. Abraham's Neighborhood, where children can learn to set a Seder table.
At the heart of the exhibit is local Jewish leaders' desire to connect with unaffiliated Jews, a term reserved for Jews who are not members of a synagogue or Jewish community group, Kuperman said.
Declines in the American Jewish population, intermarriage and religious indifference have Jewish leaders across the nation searching for ways to increase interest in their heritage and culture.
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In Hillsborough County, there are an estimated 7,000 Jewish families in the community center's database. Kuperman estimates that 25,000 Jewish families live in Hillsborough County, the majority of whom are not connected with the community.
"We're trying to really create an open tent in a way that a family would want to be involved with the Jewish community on their terms," Kuperman said. "This is another way to give families an opportunity to connect."
To ensure they catch the eye of unaffiliated Jews, the community center's leaders marketed the discovery center in secular venues such as Rooms to Go Kids, Starbucks and Barnes & Noble. If the exhibit is successful, Kuperman and Fischel would like to oversee the construction of a permanent children's museum on the community center's campus.
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On opening day, the discovery center attracted visitors who ranged from observant Jews to people of different faiths.
Brandy Gold, who owns a nanny agency and attends Congregation Kol Ami in North Tampa, watched as her daughter Brilee played with plastic fish and sailboats in a kiddie pool.
"She's having a blast," Gold said of Brilee, 3. "Right now she doesn't realize it, but she's playing with Noah's Ark. We'll explain it to her. ...She's very intrigued."
Geoff Petrie brings his three sons to the center often to expose them to a different culture. He stood watch Sunday as 5-year-old Brendan planted radish seeds in Adam and Eve's Garden exhibit.
"We really enjoy the center to get a diverse look at life," said Petrie, 36. "When it's dinnertime, the kids do their songs from the Jewish Center, and they do the sign of the Cross. It's been great."
For Marilyn Wittner and her grandchildren, it was a day well spent. Both Victoria and Marlee raved about the balloon artist and said they had a good time.
"It makes me feel wonderful," Wittner said. "I think that's what grandparents are for, to pass along the heritage."
Sherri Day can be reached at 813-226-3405 or firstname.lastname@example.org.