Washington's B'nai B'rith museum moves into the front rank this weekend with the opening of its permanent exhibition of Judaica from then three millenia.

The opening, delayed several years by theft, vandalism and inflation, was worth the wait. The objects range from the homely to high art, from touching to stunning. The layout is both striking and rational, with text blocks and captions so clear and complete you don't have to be Jewish to love it.

The arrangement is in cycles and epicycles: the development, dispersion and reassertion of the nation of Israel; the stages of the individual Jew's life; and the ceremonial observances through the Jewish year that reaffirm the role of the person in the family and the family within the community.

Most of the collection was donated by Joseph and Olyn Horwitz of Cleveland, who searched Europe after World War II for Jewish ceremonial art and cultural artifacts that had survived the Holocaust.There wasn't that much, and the Horwitzes have continued to enlarge the collection, which by now includes thousands of items.

The provenance of some of the exhibits is almost too horrific to explore. B'nai B'rith Museum Director Anna Cohn mourns the gaps but refuses to dwell on the blood and fire through which many items came.

"This is a celebration of Jewish history and life, not a commemoration of martyrs," she said. "I don't think about what has been lost but of what remains."

Asked whence came a pair of fabulous silver-and-gilt candlesticks made in Danzig in 1680, she recounted matter-of-factly: "The Jewish community in Danzig was a large and ancient one. They refused to believe what was coming as the Nazis marched across Europe. When they finally recognized the truth it was too late to get out, but they gathered up the finest objects from their people and the synagogues and shipped them to New York in 50 plain crates, with a message saying, 'If we do not survive, remember us by these.' The crates made it here safely. They were just about all that was left from Danzig."

Virtually all the objects, however fine, were made to be used, not simply admired, and most show signs of having been held by many hands -- and occasionally dropped. Some of the ceremonial wedding rings on display (most of that part of the collection was stolen in 1976) probably were community-owned and used for generations.

Other items show traces of vandalism that could not be entirely effaced in painstaking restoration after Hanafi Muslims trashed the museum during the 1977 siege. They smashed display cases and priceless objects with clubs and gun butts and wrecked havoc in the library and files. Cohn notes wryly that the pillage and siege of the museum "added a certain air of authenticity to our exposition of the Jewish experience, but we could have done without it."

Created by Ann Rossilli and Chris White of Design and Productions Inc., the exhibit underscores that there is no such thing as a Jewish style, only imperishable themes. The Torah finials and text pointers, for instance, although prescribed by ancient law for use in the same rituals, are as different as any other items from say, 17th-century Italy and 19th-century Germany. And modern examples by American artist Ludwig Wolpert show him to be steeped in tradition yet utterly unfettered by it.

To make the displays as inclusive as possible without becoming hopelessly cluttered, the museum has used photographs liberally and well, both to demonstrate further examples and to show the context in which the items were used.

Neither did the designers forget that there are short people in this world, many of whom are children, and that big people can stoop more easily than little ones can stretch. School groups visiting by arrangement will be led by docents with genuine examples the children may handle: shofars (ram's horns) to blow, groggers (noisemakers) to whirl.

B'nai B'rith no longer a little museum; the staffs of some of Washington's "major" museums could learn something here.

B'NAI B'RITH MUSEUM 1640 Rhode Island Avenue NW. Sunday through Friday, 10 to 5, except holidays. Phone: 857-6583.