Photo: Philadelphia Jewish Archive.
The Philadelphia Jewish Archives Center
Treasures not to be lost: One local Jewish institution caught in the financial squeeze.
-- Carole Rochester,
President of the Board,
Phil. Jewish Archives Center
Some people suggest that the
Philadelphia Jewish Archives Center
(PJAC) is one of the “best-kept secrets” in the Jewish community. I disagree. For more than five years I have volunteered at the Archives, first when it occupied space at the now defunct Balch Institute on 7th Street and later in its state of the art quarters at 777 Appletree Street in the Archworks Building. Last September I became President of the Board of Directors and was promptly handed the challenge of keeping the Archives from closing its doors for lack of funds.
What are the priorities for Jewish philanthropy at a time when the pot is getting smaller? My purpose is to state the case for the Archives having a portion of that pot. Let’s picture a scenario that I doubt anyone wants to see. A lack of operating funds precipitates having all the records of Federation and its affiliated agencies, all of the synagogue records, all of the business records and many more taken out of their now climate controlled, protected environment and disbursed to institutions here and around the country or returned to their owners—no longer immediately available to the Philadelphia Jewish community. Such a solution is inconceivable for those of us who know the Archives’ treasures and we will not allow it. The question is: will the Jewish community at large allow it?
Archives are not glamorous or elegant but they are indispensable. Recently on my way from PJAC I met a friend, who, knowing I had been at the Archives, shared something with me. She said she once lived at the Homewood School (later part of the Association for Jewish Children) and was adopted from there. She knew that PJAC housed the records for these agencies. On another occasion I had pulled some records from one of the Neighborhood Centers and someone remarked wistfully, “I used to play sports there.” Time and again, someone searches bank records and ship lists for names of grandparents and other relatives. When they find them, there is general celebration among the staff.
Photo: Philadelphia Jewish Archive.
The Philadelphia Jewish Archives is now in its 36th year of operation and it has come a long way from the time in 1961 when Maxwell Whiteman, Librarian at Dropsie College, deplored that the irreplaceable records “of the Jewish community had been lost or destroyed for lack of adequate means of preserving them.”
Eleven years later a July 27, 1972 article in the Jewish Times announced the formation of the Philadelphia Jewish Archives to be opened the following September:
A Jewish Archives Center, the first of its kind in the city, is being established by the Federation of Jewish Agencies in association with the Philadelphia Chapter, American Jewish Committee.
According to Morris A. Kravitz, FJA president, the purpose of the Archives Center is to obtain important historical records about the Philadelphia Jewish community, and classify and make available information for scholarly research and other educational purposes.
In early 1973 PJAC’s first Board approved some goals for the Archives:
Photo: Philadelphia Jewish Archive.
- Collect material from Philadelphia, Bucks, Chester, Delaware and Montgomery Counties in Pennsylvania and invite participation of the Camden [County] Jewish community.
- Collect broadly without an attempt to distinguish between records of Jews and the Jewish community but restrict to regional interests.
- Principal mission is to collect, store and provide
convenient access to documentary and pictorial information.
We should not encourage requests to become a museum.
- Actively encourage students and scholars to use the Archives
The first Board members included some of the most prominent Jewish Philadelphians: Daniel Elazar, Chairman, Maxwell Whiteman, Mrs. Leonard Epstein, Edwin Wolf, 2nd, Barton E. Ferst, Robert B. Wolf, Theodore Hershberg, Dr. Murray Friedman, Dr. Ernst Presseisen, Charles Kahn, Jr., Joan Heltzer, Dr. Seymour Mandelbaum, Mitchell E. Panzer, Leon Zimmerman,
Dr. Chaim Potok. Dr. Ernst Presseisen, retired professor of history at Temple University and Charles Kahn, Jr., who acquired our first quarters for a $1 a year rent, are still on the Archives’ Board of Directors in 2008.
By May of 1973 the first inventory of collections was drawn up. These included 300 boxes of material from Federation, 200 cartons from the Neighborhood Center, 25 cartons from the Association for Jewish Children, 9 ring binders of history and memorabilia from Beth David Reform Synagogue. There were many other documents listed.
The Archives stayed in rent-free cramped, non-air conditioned quarters until 1985 when it moved to offices in the Balch Institute where it remained for twenty years. When the Balch records became part of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, PJAC’s Board of Directors decided to launch a campaign to move into renovated offices in the ArchWorks Building at 777 Appletree St. With the move came many more expenses; the rent, for example, quadrupled.
The Archives’ mission has always been to collect, preserve, educate and provide research opportunities. We are proud of the growth in our collections, adding in the past year records from the Jewish Film Festival, Moss Rehab, Camp Kennebec, papers of Rabbis Pinchos Chazin and Henry Cohen and many more. PJAC has a wealth of photographs; over 3,000 images have been digitized.
Of special note was the beginning of efforts to
gather business records. As Lily Schwartz, long time PJAC administrator put it: “The archives is about to embark the most significant project since its inception--the Philadelphia Jewish Business Archives. Philadelphia Jewish businessmen from their earliest arrival have made important contributions to the city, not only to its economic prosperity but to its philanthropic, educational, and cultural life.”
An educational project aimed at middle school students in Jewish day schools has
been put in place this year at Saligman. Youngsters came to the Archives for their
first session for a hands-on experience, including a monitored “scavenger hunt” in the
stacks. We hope to expand this program for children in synagogue after-school programs.
We have much to be proud of at the Archives: a dedicated staff, committed volunteers, and a mission to keep these collections growing and secure. These are not easy times for non-profits but we believe that our valuable collections must stay together—probably attached to an academic institution or synagogue complex and we are working toward that end. Remember in the movie, “Everything is Illuminated” how touching it was to see one woman’s efforts to save the artifacts of a Jewish community that had perished in the Holocaust. Future generations would wonder if we do not maintain the records of our past. The butchers union, the women who made hats and did so well that their business morphed into a large department store, the Jewish Maternity Hospital that housed a school of nursing for the community’s poor, the neighborhood centers, the South Jersey agricultural communities—all are part of the story of the Jewish community in this area. And these stories are cherished by PJAC. Don’t let us fail to keep them safe.
I recently asked Dr. Jonathan Sarna, Professor of American Jewish History at Brandeis and Chair of the Academic and Advisory Board of the American Jewish Archives, to describe why he thinks PJAC is important. Here is what he wrote:
"The Philadelphia Jewish Archives Center serves as the Jewish community's historical memory. Its remarkable collection of records includes those of some of the city's most significant Jewish individuals and institutions. Today, with Jewish historical amnesia rampant, the need to safeguard the sources of Philadelphia Jewish history could not be more pressing. By properly preserving the community's heritage, the Philadelphia Jewish Archives Center encourages our children to preserve their heritage as well."
Don’t let us fail to keep your treasures safe. Glamorous we may not be; essential we are.
Call 215-925-8090, ext 242 to find out how to contribute.
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