NEW YORK — Torah and taxidermy don’t usually flock together, but at New York City’s quirky — and award-winning — Torah Animal World museum, a stuffed zoo comes alive.
Located in the heavily Orthodox neighborhood of Borough Park, Brooklyn, Rabbi Shaul Shimon Deutsch’s museum blends a Noah’s Ark of taxidermy with informative tours.
“Whether you’re interested in the Torah or nature, the point of what we do here is to educate and [teach] respect for animals,” says Deutsch.
The museum’s 1,100-animal collection ranges from a family of lions (cubs included) to barn animals, to fish and creepy crawlies. Amazingly, it’s okay to touch them all — including a Fiat 500-sized African elephant bust (and matching elephant-foot stools) originally purchased for $40,000.
“I tell the kids, ‘Touch its foot,’” says Deutsch. “You never realize how hairy they are. It gives you an experience of what it’s like to be front and center with these animals.”
Providing that opportunity is important to the rabbi — and his audience has definitely caught on. Torah Animal World offers tours by appointment in English, Hebrew, Yiddish, and Portuguese, and attracts a diverse crowd of students, travelers and even Amish groups. About 60 percent of the museum’s visitors are from the Orthodox community, and it is as close as most of them will ever get to a natural history museum.
Zoos are permitted to the religious communities, but hardly a replacement, Deutsch says. “Half the animals are sleeping. A lion sleeps 20 hours a day [and] you don’t get to see them up close.”
Situated in a converted three-story row house with a tan exterior and coin-operated rideable horse and giraffe out front, Torah Animal World feels like the scrappy, shoestring operation it is. Its brown carpeted stairs squeak, ceiling beams are rustically exposed, and some of the taxidermy has seen better days.
Despite regular upkeep, some specimens are missing patches of fur or look downright tired. An enormous white rhino bust, like much of the collection, is both awe-inspiring and tragic. Hunted to near extinction in the wild (no males live in nature and only two females remain), the enormous rhino’s skin is cracked and peeling, and its horn was replaced long before acquisition with a non-ivory substitute.
The museum’s rooms are organized between kosher and non-kosher animals and overflowing with glassy-eyed creatures.
In the main room, preserved fish line one wall under a cloudscape-painted ceiling. African lions gaze at zebras. A barn area is filled with goats and sheep. Deer, bison, and ibex fill a kosher animal nook. There’s also a seven-foot tall giraffe bust.
“[People] think a giraffe is kosher but we don’t know how to shecht [slaughter] it. That’s a myth,” says Deutsch, who’s also a trained ritual slaughterer.
“Giraffe meat is very tough,” Deutsch says, though since it’s illegal to slaughter exotics in New York state, he’s never eaten it himself.
Other rooms are similarly swarming with wildlife, the walls and floors lined with mounted birds, monkeys, deer, zebra, and many types of fish. Just about everything can be touched, including the scaly 16-foot-long Nile crocodile, Deutsch’s favorite animal of the lot.
While not against hunting himself (all museum specimens were sourced from collectors, museums, or zoos) Deutsch knows Torah Animal World can have a profound effect on visitors.
During a tour for a group of students from Texas, a visitor said, “Rabbi, you ruined my life. I’m a hunter. I go out and shoot animals. You can never get this close to them [in the wild]. I don’t think I can ever hunt another animal again,” he recounts.
It’s statements like this that make Deutsch’s investment in multi-sensory education so worthwhile.
“You’re not going to walk over to a hyena and start playing around with it. [The museum] gives an opportunity to experience these animals in a safe way,” he says.
Deutsch, 52, opened Torah Animal World in 2008, but his foray into education began in 2002. The Living Torah Museum — a sister museum also located onsite — aims to bring Torah alive through antiquities.
Everything in that collection is also touchable, including a delicate gold crown allegedly worn by Cleopatra or a combat-scarred gladiator sword. Since opening, the two museums have collectively attracted more than 1.3 million visitors.
The 2008 economic collapse nearly shuttered the operation, when, as with so many other good causes, funding dried up following the Bernie Madoff Ponzi scheme. Parts of the collection were sold off, and at one point the building was up sale. Luckily, Deutsch secured new sponsors and even opened a second seasonal location in Fallsburg, New York.
Since then the museum has grown and thrived in pursuit of its mission.
“Education is tikkun olam [repairing the world],” Deutsch says. “We started as a biblical museum, but its grown into so much more. You can find Hasidic Jewish people, bikers, Modern Orthodox Jews, African Americans, and Asian people all coming to the same place. You open your eyes to see the nature of God’s creations, it brings a deeper connection and a deeper understanding of the world.”
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