Jeshajahu "Shaike" Weinberg, 81, the founding director of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, died Jan. 1 at a hospital in Tel Aviv. He had a circulatory ailment.

Mr. Weinberg, who had been a theater and museum director in Israel, came out of retirement and came to this country in 1988 as a senior consultant to the museum. He was recruited by the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council in 1989 as the museum's first director, a job he held until 1995.

The museum was established as this country's institution for the study and documentation of the Holocaust and also as a study for the victims of Nazi horror. These included Jews, Gypsies and homosexuals as well as physically and mentally handicapped people judged as "subhuman" by the Nazi regime. Other groups included such Protestant sects as Seventh-Day Adventists.

Mr. Weinberg combined the flair and drama of the theater with work done by cutting-edge scholars to create an unforgettable institution. The $100 million museum includes everything from documents and film to the tragic material remains of Holocaust victims.

Museum officials have written of his quests for the museum--a rail car from Poland, an entire barracks from Auschwitz and 4,000 pairs of shoes from the victims at Majdanek in Poland. He sought to move and inform visitors from grade school students to professional scholars.

The result was a permanent exhibit that New Republic magazine called "a pedagogical masterpiece."

The museum was stunningly successful with the public from the first day. It opened its doors in April 1993. A November 1993 survey of 4,000 visitors revealed that 94 percent felt their experience was very or extremely moving. A 1995 Washington Post article described how people were still lining up for tickets each morning.

Mr. Weinberg has been credited with leading the museum from the drawing board to reality, working along the way to combine his dramatic public exhibits with facilities for archival storage and research and the beginnings of a major library.

The retired theater director, who had also retired as founding director of the Diaspora Museum of Tel Aviv, took on the Washington job with the understanding that he would be able to retire in short order.

"I came originally as a consultant. I stayed because at that time there was nobody else to put this museum together," he once told a Post reporter.

"I don't regret having done it. It is probably the most important thing I have done in my life--because of the importance of the subject matter and the importance of the educational task that this museum will help to fulfill."

After retiring from the Holocaust Museum, Mr. Weinberg lived in Tel Aviv, but he never really retired. Since 1995, he had chaired the design team of the Museum of the History of the Polish Jews, in Warsaw, and since 1998 had been a design consultant to the Jewish Museum in Berlin.

Mr. Weinberg, who was born in Warsaw, immigrated to Palestine in the mid-1930s and settled on a kibbutz. From 1935 until Israeli independence in 1948, he served in the Hagana, the Jewish self-defense paramilitary organization that struggled against Arabs and the British. But from 1942 to 1946, he served in the British Army's Jewish Brigade and saw combat in Italy.

From 1956 to 1962, he was deputy director of the office mechanization center in the office of the Israeli prime minister. He was director of the Municipal Theater of Tel Aviv from 1961 to 1976 and then director of the Jewish Diaspora Museum in Tel Aviv from 1976 until 1984.

Mr. Weinberg also had served as a senior consultant to both the Museum of History of Jerusalem and the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York. He also was a past president of the Israeli Center of UNESCO's International Theater Institute.

He co-wrote, along with Rina Elieli, the 1996 book "The Holocaust Museum in Washington," in which the various agendas of the participants in the horror were described.

"The victims wanted the world to know," the authors wrote. "The perpetrators wanted the world not to know. The bystanders wanted the world not to know that they knew."

The authors went on to write that some of those bystanders were Americans and the American government. On a brighter note, the authors wrote that only in a democracy could a museum be built, with public money, that included such inherent criticism of that government itself.

Mr. Weinberg once told The Post: "I don't think the museum is a safeguard against repetition. But I think all we can do is to try and educate people to make them understand how civilization can break down."

His wife, Hanna, died in 1992.

Survivors include a son and three daughters.