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Founder Leaving Holocaust Museum

“Not necessarily my choice,” Jay Ipson says

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Jay M. Ipson - SCOTT ELMQUIST/FILE

Holocaust survivor Jay M. Ipson, one of three founders of the Virginia Holocaust Museum, is being ousted from his position as the museum's executive director.

Ipson, 77, confirms Monday that he'll leave the position he's held for a decade. Simon Sibelman, the museum's assistant director, will take over as executive director July 1.

The change was "not necessarily my choice," Ipson says, declining to say more. Marcus M. Weinstein, chairman of Weinstein Properties and the museum's board, also wouldn't go into detail. "That's a personnel situation," he says, "so I don't get involved."

Ipson sent a letter to museum supporters April 6 apologizing for a piece he wrote in the March issue of the museum's newsletter about Holocaust survivors' struggles to get restitution for their property and financial losses by the International Commission on Holocaust Era Claims.

Although his article made no mention of Ambassador Randolph Bell, Ipson wrote in his apology that, "I fear that I created the erroneous impression that he was responsible for [the] adverse treatment of Holocaust survivors' claims" by the commission. Bell is former special envoy for Holocaust issues for the U.S. State Department, as well as a museum board member and president of the First Freedom Center.

The newsletter "had nothing to do with my departure from the museum," Ipson says. "But there were certain people who were upset about it."

The Virginia Holocaust Museum was a labor of love for Ipson and his co-founders, Mark Fetter and Al Rosenbaum. They started it in 1997 in a few unused rooms in Temple Beth-El, and then in 2000 received the gift of a Shockoe Bottom tobacco warehouse from the state legislature. The museum was dedicated in April 2003.

The museum expects to see 70,000 visitors this year. "It surpassed anything I ever dreamed [of] when I started the museum with my friends," Ipson says. The newest exhibit, which is still under development while the museum seeks more funding, explores genocide around the world.

Weinstein says there are no plans to change the museum's direction. "I think it's going in a wonderful direction now," he says.

Ipson was a child when he and his family were deported to the Lithuanian Kovno ghetto in 1943. The family escaped to a farm and lived in a stifling underground dugout for nearly a year. One of the museum's permanent exhibits documents their escape to the United States. Will it remain after Ipson's departure?

"I hope so," he says.

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