In Search Of An Identity


Rabbi Joshua Plaut knows what it’s like to live with an active 2-year-old. His toddler son, Jonas, has already joined him in three road races (albeit pushed in a baby jogger), including a first-place showing in last year’s 5K run in Chilmark, Mass.

Now Rabbi Plaut, 45, has come to New York to run the Center for Jewish History, which opened to the public in October 2000. The center bills itself as the "Library of Congress of the Jewish people," because it houses the largest repository of Jewish-related documents, photographs and artifacts outside of Israel.

The center’s five organizations (the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, the Leo Baeck Institute, the American Jewish Historical Society, the American Sephardi Federation and Yeshiva University Museum) together represent over 100 years of institutional experience. But as it enters its third year, the center itself is still finding its footing, both operationally (a few weeks ago, maintenance workers mistakenly opened a valve that flooded the basement) and publicly.

"People still perceive us as a new kid on the block," Rabbi Plaut told The Jewish Week recently in between meetings in the conference room that serves as his temporary office. "These five [constituent] institutions are each very distinguished," Rabbi Plaut, the center’s third executive director, says. "My mission is to create a distinct identity for the Center for Jewish History."

To that end, he is considering a raft of initiatives, including an "adopt a document" program through which donors can sponsor the conservation and re-publication of one of the 100 million documents and half-million library volumes housed at the center. He’s also planning greater outreach to Jewish high school and junior high school students, day schools, universities and local rabbinical seminaries.

Rabbi Plaut will also have to raise upwards of $4 million a year to cover the expenses of running the spacious center on West 16th Street. The former home of the American Federation for the Blind/Helen Keller Institute, the renovated building now houses the offices and holdings of the five constituent organizations, a genealogical center, a two-story reading room, a 250-seat auditorium, six exhibition galleries and a kosher cafe.

The center is an umbrella organization for the constituent organizations, which act autonomously in terms of fund-raising and creating programs that the center coordinates. Creating a unifying administrative structure was the work of the center’s previous directors, Lois Cronholm, who left last year for a position at the City University of New York, and Joseph Becker, a retired lawyer and the vice chairman of YIVO, who served as interim director until Rabbi Plaut took over Sept. 1.

"We just conceived of [the center] as a condominium association," says Michael Feldberg, director of the American Jewish Historical Society, "so having operationally oriented executives made a lot of sense.

"The challenges before us now are of a different sort," Feldberg says. They include assuring there is sufficient funding to operate "what has turned out to be expensive infrastructure" and a staff of 40 people. But the center also needs a representative who can promote its image as a dynamic resource.

"Our responsibility is to save and preserve historical documents and the books of the Jewish people," Rabbi Plaut says, noting that 80 percent of YIVO’s collection is in need of restoration. Raising his voice excitedly, Rabbi Plaut asks, "How can you have Jewish cultural revitalization without the sacred historical and cultural texts of the Jewish people?"

Rabbi Plaut has worked in the trenches of Jewish continuity and renewal. He served simultaneously for nearly a decade as the Hillel chaplain at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and as the spiritual leader of the Martha’s Vineyard Hebrew Center, which grew during his tenure form 100 to 400 families. Prior to that, he was the rabbi at Congregation Kol Chaverim in Glastonbury, Conn., while directing the Hillel at Trinity College in Hartford.

But the scope of Rabbi Plaut’s new role extends far beyond his previous posts. "He’s not experienced in this type of effort," says Bruce Slovin, the center’s founding chairman, who oversaw the nine-month search process.

Rabbi Plaut, 45, beat out about nearly 50 other candidates from the fields of academia, law and Jewish communal service because of his scholarship, charm and energy, according to Slovin and others involved in the search. "He brings together a lot of pieces," Slovin says.

Those pieces include expertise in American Jewish and Sephardi history, fluency in Hebrew, conversational ability in Greek and knowledge of Ladino and Yiddish. Rabbi Plaut is completing his Ph.D. dissertation, "Silent Night? Being Jewish at Christmas Time in the 1990s," which he is preparing for publication. His book "Greek Jewry in the Twentieth Century, 1913-1983" is now in its third printing.

Rabbi Plaut has also created photography exhibitions on Jewish life in Greece, Turkey, Central Asia and the American South, which have been exhibited at museums in Europe, Israel and across the United States, including the YU Museum and City Hall in Athens, Greece. Another exhibition of photographs, "Fading Glory: Vestiges of Small Town Jewish Life," covered small communities in the American South.

In numerous other ways, Rabbi Plaut’s curriculum vitae connects with the individual missions of the center’s five partners. His late maternal grandmother, Nechama Yanich, wrote Yiddish poetry, a privately published volume of which is in the YIVO library. His father, Rabbi Walter Plaut, fled Nazi Germany in 1937 with his brother, Jonas, who had been sent ahead from Berlin in 1933 by Rabbi Leo Baeck. An aunt used the LBI archives to write two books of genealogy.

Joshua Plaut was raised in Haifa, where his mother, Hadassah, moved with her two sons after his father, then the rabbi at Temple Emanuel in Great Neck, died suddenly in 1964.

Their arrival in 1967 coincided with the outbreak of the Six-Day War. That terrifying time, Rabbi Plaut says, was the first of many "major moments in my life that intersected with modern Jewish history" that culminated in witnessing the signing of the Oslo Accords at the White House in 1995.

Rabbi Plaut’s fascination with small Jewish communities was sparked in 1997 when, as a college student, he went to Greece to pursue studies that might promote his ambitions to become a diplomat. To escape the traffic and pollution in Athens, he devised an independent study of Greek folklore among provincial Jews.

Rabbi Plaut returned four years later to collect oral histories that became the basis for his book tracing the decimated communities’ attempts at rehabilitation after the Holocaust. The Greek countryside "was my first stomping ground as a historian," he says.

Rabbi Plaut’s interest in American Jewish history was fostered at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. There he studied under Jacob Rader Marcus, who had taught three other members of Rabbi Plaut’s family at HUC. As a student-rabbi beginning in 1986, Rabbi Plaut served in small Southern towns like Jonesboro, Ark. This year, Rabbi Plaut was a Jacob Rader Marcus Fellow at the American Jewish Archives in Cincinnati, which Rader founded and directed.

"It was eerie," Rabbi Plaut says of his mentor’s namesake fellowship. But, he adds, Marcus, who died in 1995 at age 99, "would be proud to know I’m here."

At the center in New York, Slovin says, an "enormous amount of work" remains to "bring it to the next level" of visibility and operational efficiency.

Slowly, though, the center is gaining ground as a Jewish cultural destination. This week, the center and its institutions sponsored sell-out events featuring Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and Israel’s Supreme Court President Aharon Barak (see story on page 12). The center’s Chelsea location makes it an attractive venue for contemporary artists, such as the Moscow-born team, Komar and Melamid, whose work will be exhibited at the Y.U. Museum this fall.

It recently received two foundation grants to start a family history project for Jewish high school students and to hold a series on "Jews and Justice." The center runs both programs in conjunction with constituent institutions.

Rabbi Plaut’s background and abilities, Feldberg of the AJHS says, will enable him "to articulate for donors why the center is a worthwhile enterprise to support." And, he adds, Rabbi Plaut "understands our business in the way most members of the board don’t or somebody who just knows about engineering could not do."

"I still want him to make the elevators run," Feldberg says, "but he’s the kind of person who can handle both dimensions."