BY RON FEINBERG / WEB EDITOR //

Mention “The Breman” in Metro Atlanta and the first image that pops into most people’s minds is a Holocaust museum. That’s both good and bad.

Executive director Aaron Berger sees the Breman Museum soaring to new heights in 2013. PHOTO / Gary Feinberg

Executive Director Aaron Berger sees the Breman Museum soaring to new heights in 2013. PHOTO / Gary Feinberg

The William Breman Jewish Heritage Museum has a vast and iconic Holocaust gallery that draws thousands of visitors each year. But Aaron Berger is hoping that it can become much more.

Berger, who joined the museum a year ago as executive director, is on a mission. His goal is to reinvigorate The Breman by building on what already exists and, in the not-too-distant future, turn the place into a cultural destination for Atlantans and tourists.

“I want The Breman to become one of the cultural centers of Atlanta,” Berger said. “My hope is that, when someone is sitting around on a Thursday evening and trying to figure out what they want to do over the weekend, we become part of the conversation.”

To that end, Berger and his staff have been examining the museum’s goals in recent months and are set to present a new mission statement to its board of directors in a few weeks.

“We want to move beyond history and become a place that encourages an appreciation of Jewish art, history and Jewish identity,” he said. “We really want to focus on highlighting the Jewish contribution…to the world.”

To a degree, that has always been part of the museum’s mission, both through The Lillian and A.J. Weinberg Center for Holocaust Education and the Cuba Family Archives for Southern Jewish History.

In recent years, the museum has also featured a series of high-profile exhibits, including “ZAP! POW! BAM!,” examining the golden age of comic books and the role Jewish artists had in their success; and “Where the Wild Things Are,” a look at the creative world of writer and illustrator Maurice Sendak.

The special exhibits will continue: Opening this month is a fun and, well, tasty exhibition, “Chosen Food: Cuisine, Culture, American Jewish Identity,” that will examine the significance of Jewish food and meals through photographs, memorabilia, recollections and opinions.

Then, in May, “Project Mahjong” will take center stage, exploring the traditions, history and meaning of the game in Jewish American life from its beginnings in the 1920s through today. Both of these exhibitions were planned under the leadership of Jane Leavey, the former executive director of The Breman, who Berger has only words of praise for when discussing past successes.

He’s in good company when talking about his predecessor.

“I know that Bill Breman [the man whose vision and financial support led to the creation of the museum] is smiling down on The Breman,” said Elinor Breman, Bill’s widow and a major supporter and cheerleader for the museum. “He was so very proud of Jane Leavey’s efforts and would have appreciated Aaron Berger and how he has built on her success.”

Berger’s efforts and his hopes for the future will be unveiled later this year with the opening of a major exhibition on Rich’s, the department store that for years was inextricably linked with the city of Atlanta – and the Jewish community. His thinking is that the Rich’s exhibit will attract a new and larger audience for The Breman.

Whether you’re Jewish or not, a member of the Orthodox community or a non-practicing Jew, the Rich’s story is probably part of your life if you grew up in the area. After all, who hasn’t heard about Rich’s or once shopped there?

“When I first started here and talked to people in the community, many said they had never visited The Breman,” Berger said. “Hearing that was like having a knife go through my heart.”

Berger thinks his challenge is finding a way to reach broader segments of the entire community.

“The Breman needs to be accessible to all people,” he said. “And if we do our job right, we can use the museum as a vehicle to educate the public about the Jewish world and Jewish contributions.”

Do it properly, and the really good news will be that Berger will also be welcoming new visitors to The Breman. He’s also hoping that people who haven’t been to the museum in a few years will stop by soon for a return visit.

“The message I’m sharing these days is to tell people to come back for a program or a new event,” he said. “Come back and rediscover The Breman.”

Editor’s note: See thebreman.org for more info on the museum, its location and hours and upcoming exhibits.