WASHINGTON (JTA) — More than one in three Americans have explored their family trees according to a 2011 “60 Minutes/Vanity Fair” poll. Jews, who tend to skew the curve when it comes to all things nerdy, must certainly be among the greatest shakers of genealogical boughs and branches. How many of us have spent nights pouring over the online records from Ellis Island or the U.S. Census Bureau?
And yet, some of the greatest sources of information about our families and our community lie abandoned and vulnerable in the basements and storerooms of our communal institutions. As Jewish groups — from synagogues to international organizations — work to satisfy today’s needs and strengthen the future, preserving records of the past often falls by the wayside.
We have seen historical records treated shabbily by our communal institutions. That is why the recent decision by B’nai B’rith International to turn over its remarkable historical records to the American Jewish Archives is such a unique example — and a deep blessing — to the community as a whole.
With a record of achievement dating back to 1843 and an archive written mainly in English, B’nai B’rith’s material promises to give unique access to information locked away for too many years. The collection is estimated to comprise more than 1 million documents and takes up 800 linear feet of storage space.
During its heyday, B’nai B’rith’s empire of lodges and members stretched from Iraq to Sudan, Poland to Algeria, Argentina to Canada, and most countries in between. Its members fought for the North and the South during the Civil War, and for both sides of World War I. B’nai Birth lodges sprung up wherever a Jewish peddler plied his trade and provided some of the first self-help societies in long-forgotten shtetls and hamlets.
The first B’nai B’rith group on the West Coast was formed in San Francisco in 1855 — before a train or telegraph linked the continent, and before the Panama Canal cut the sea journey in half. With a history this deep and wide, there is no telling the treasures these records may hold for individuals in search of family information or historians seeking important nuggets.
As a B’nai B’rith staff member for a decade, I had the pleasure of spending hours in the archives before they were packed up and stored when the organization sold its Washington headquarters building in 2002.
I worked with the organization’s part-time archivist, Hannah Sinauer, of blessed memory, who lavished loving care on the many volumes of “District Grand Lodge” and “Constitution Grand Lodge” reports in the collection. Hannah’s connection to the material was deeply personal: Her father had been a B’nai B’rith leader in Germany before the family fled the Nazis. Browsing through a book with her one day, she showed me her father’s name in the listing of B’nai B’rith members who proudly served the kaiser during the Great War.
Today, finally, after 10 years in storage, the records will be preserved and properly catalogued by a world-class library. One hopes they will be digitized and put online for universal access.
B’nai B’rith, which led the community in creating such enduring institutions as the Anti-Defamation League, Hillel and the B’nai B’rith Youth Organization, again has provided an example for other groups small and large. As others contemplate the disposition of their records, they should consider the fact that these archives do not belong to one organization or era: They belong to all of us who have been touched by Jewish history. They are our family records. Storing them properly, in an environment that will preserve them for future generations, not only pays respect to our forebears, but it also enables future generations to learn from our successes and failures.
Jewish institutions at all levels must demonstrate the will and the ability to preserve our records with respect. They should set aside the human and financial resources to maintain their most important archives and to properly dispose of the rest. They should keep their documents in an environment that ensures their survival, at a minimum. Even better, it should be an environment that gives access to responsible researchers. They should consider lending or donating these materials to local and national historical societies that have the ability to store and display them.
As a community, we should support institutions like the American Jewish Archives, ones devoted to preserving and disseminating our historical records. We often criticize foreign governments for failing to preserve Jewish historical sites and artifacts. How can we condemn others when we ourselves often fail to preserve the records in our own care?
(Jeff Rubin is communications director for a research institution in Washington, D.C.)