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Theater & art

Benefactor gives MFA a solid base in Judaica

A Hanukkah lamp from the Schusterman collection.

Museum of Fine Arts

A Hanukkah lamp from the Schusterman collection.

The billionaire collector from Oklahoma was in Boston two years ago when a friend invited her to visit the newly built Art of the Americas wing at the Museum of Fine Arts. Lynn Schusterman was impressed. But the Jewish philanthropist noticed an enormous hole in the MFA’s collection.

The largest museum in Boston owned barely any relics of Jewish life and customs. Judaica is an increasingly popular field that features objects used for religious occasions.

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Thanks to Schusterman, that has changed. This week the MFA will announce that Schusterman has given the museum 119 objects, an important infusion into a collection that, until now, numbered just 12 works. She has also given an undisclosed amount of money so the MFA can conserve and study the works as well as use the pieces to develop school programs.

“For us, this is a foundational gift,” said Marietta Cambareri, the museum’s Judaica curator. “This gives us a Judaica collection to work with and puts [the museum] on a footing nationally.”

The MFA has been trying to improve its holdings, having spent nearly $500,000 on an 18th-century Hanukkah lamp in 2009 and naming Cambareri to her post in 2010. Schusterman learned of this push during her museum visit with Joyce Linde, an MFA donor and honorary trustee.

But it has not been easy for the museum to acquire valuable works.

In April, the Metropolitan Museum of Art outbid the MFA to purchase an 18th-century silver Torah crown at auction. The piece sold for $857,000.

Just bidding on the crown would have been impossible before 2009. That’s when Jetskalina H. Phillips, a retired school teacher from Kansas, gave the MFA a gift of more than $2.5 million. At the time, the MFA knew nothing about Phillips. Since then, the museum has learned that she lived in Boston in the 1960s and converted to Judaism at Temple Israel just days before getting married to a local physician.

While no object in the Schusterman gift is as valuable as the crown, the range and scope of the works in the collection is important, said William Gross, a longtime collector of Judaica who has advised museums around the world.

“It gives a wonderful base,” said Gross, speaking by phone from Tel Aviv. “There are a number of pieces fit to be displayed in any museum and [the collection] contains all the various sorts of Judaica, from Sabbath utensils to items used in synagogue rituals. It’s very exciting.”

The Schusterman gift also represents the latest step in a shift in Boston’s cultural landscape. Historically, Jews were rarely in leadership posts in museums and arts organizations. But in 1991, Hank Foster became the MFA’s first Jewish board chairman. In 2005, the late Ed Linde — Joyce Linde’s husband — became the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s first Jewish chairman.

Jonathan Sarna, a Brandeis professor of American Jewish History who has studied the Jewish community in Boston and has been advising Cambareri, said he has been encouraged by the MFA’s attempt to fill what he called “a big lacuna.”

What’s more, he appreciates that the MFA is making sure its Judaica material is not kept in its own space but integrated into the museum’s collection. Timed to Hanukkah, which begins Wednesday, the MFA this month has put on display five works given by Schusterman in a European gallery that includes an art nouveau cabinet, 19th-century marriage ring, and an ornate, Italian armchair.

“You can see Jewish materials side by side with other materials from the same place and the same era, whatever it is,” Sarna said.

The MFA’s plan to display the Judaica with art in other areas impressed Schusterman.

In a phone interview, she described her new relationship with the MFA by using the Yiddish word “beshert,” meant to define destiny.

That feeling started to emerge when she visited the museum with Joyce Linde and later met Cambareri and Emily Zilber, the museum’s curator of contemporary decorative arts. She then heard about the Phillips gift that had helped establish Cambareri’s curatorship and an acquisition fund. Before long, Schusterman had invited Cambareri to Tulsa, Okla., to examine the silver Sabbath candle holders, Hanukkah lamps, and assorted other items of Judaica — including spice towers, rugs from Israel, and Passover Seder plates — that would become part of the gift.

“The MFA is one of the world’s great encyclopedic museums with more than a million visitors a year,” said Schusterman. “To me, that was something very important. Hearing about how they were planning to use the [works], it just sort of clicked.”

Gross, the Tel Aviv collector, said that he is encouraged by the MFA’s interest. There are only three mainstream museums in North America with strong Judaica collections: The North Carolina Museum of Art, Minneapolis Institute of Arts, and Royal Ontario Museum.

The Schusterman gift immediately puts the MFA on the map in this area, he said.

Schusterman, 74, grew up in Oklahoma and married Charles Schusterman, who ran an oil and gas company that made him a billionaire by the time of his death in 2000. The couple launched a foundation in 1987 to strengthen Jewish life around the world and support local causes in Oklahoma.

In 2007, the foundation pledged $15 million to Brandeis University to start The Schusterman Center for Israel Studies.

In making the MFA gift, Schusterman said she plans to remain involved with the museum and is excited to see her collection put to good use, both in the galleries and for school programs.

“I don’t believe in giving something like this and just walking away from it,” she said. “I’m a very hands-on kind of person.”

Geoff Edgers can be reached at gedgers@globe.com.
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