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New History Center Touted As Jewish ‘Library of Congress’

October 24, 2000
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This week’s opening of what is being touted as “the Library of Congress of the Jewish People” brings together what is believed to be the largest repository of Jewish archival material outside Israel.

Under one roof, at the Center for Jewish History, one can now find an extensive book, archive and art collection.

Included among the items are: the original handwritten draft of Emma Lazarus’ 1883 “Give me your tired, your poor” poem that went on to be inscribed on the base of the Statue of Liberty; the oldest American Jewish cookbook; Sandy Koufax’s Brooklyn Dodgers jersey and the eyeglasses of Jewish Enlightenment thinker Moses Mendelssohn.

The New York institution, officially opening with a gala ceremony on Thursday, is a consortium of five Jewish organizations brought together into a $50 million facility designed specifically for the purpose.

By joining together, the partner organizations bring together under one roof several areas of Jewish history – the American Jewish Historical Society, which focuses on the U.S. Jewish experience; the American Sephardi Federation; the Leo Baeck Institute, whose holdings are on Jews in German-speaking countries; the Yeshiva University Museum and the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, which addresses Eastern European Jewish history.

The organizations will maintain separate boards and budgets, but share resources and jointly sponsor various events.

The center’s primary mission is to serve scholars of Jewish history, but the center and its individual partners will also offer services of general interest, hosting art exhibits, concerts and public lectures, as well as assisting people with family history projects.

A gleaming new building on a block of brownstones in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood, the center is physically impressive, with state-of-the-art computers, a custom-designed stone floor in the lobby with intricate biblical- themed designs, extensive gallery and display space and jade and teal detail trimming the wood-paneled, skylit reading room.

The center is earning mostly praise, both from scholars and the partner organizations.

Michael Fedberg, executive director of the American Jewish Historical Society, said the center will “provide a meeting ground on which scholars from different institutions can interact and enrich thinking” about Jewish history.

Carl Rheins, executive director of YIVO, said the new facility dramatically improves his organization’s ability to properly store materials, offer public programs and serve researchers.

“Our previous mansion was not air-conditioned, not properly humidified for documents and had no adequate space for researchers to work,” he said. “We’re here now in a modern center with a magnificent temperature-controlled storage area, and state-of-the art computers, phone systems and faxes.”

Natan Meir, a doctoral candidate in Jewish history at Columbia University, said the center is a “wonderful place to work.”

“The reading room is beautiful, and I think it’s fantastic that all the organizations will be under one roof,” he said.

However, some scholars question whether investing so lavishly in a physical building, particularly in Manhattan, where real estate is expensive, is the best use of resources.

Instead, they argue, the center might have been wiser to store the materials in a more modest facility and focus on making them all available over the Internet.

Jonathan Sarna, Braun professor of modern Jewish history at Brandeis University, said he is concerned that “so much money is going into bricks and mortar that there won’t be money available for the scholarly programs of the center.”

The majority of the center’s operating budget goes toward maintaining the building, but that does not include the services covered in the partner organizations’ budgets, say officials of the organizations.

Currently, the center’s resources are not available on the Internet and the separate catalogs for the organizations’ collections – much of it housed in card catalog cabinets – is still in the process of being merged into one database.

Lois Cronholm, the center’s vice president, said she does not foresee putting the whole collection on the Internet, but there are plans for an academic council to meet and establish priorities as to what materials ought to be digitized.

Cronholm insists that the consortium is more than “just an address where five organizations moved in because it was an air-conditioned building.”

The center, she said, provides “information on a worldwide basis on what happened at various times in history,” and is a “giant step forward in the ability to study Jewish history.”

“You can’t just do that all in cyberspace,” she said.

The center will provide a new reference spot for Jewish genealogy, an avocation that is believed to be growing in popularity.

Gary Mokotoff, co-owner of Avotaynu Inc., a New Jersey-based publisher of books and a quarterly magazine on Jewish genealogy, estimates that some 50,000 Jews around the world are involved in researching their family history.

“Any location that provides the service of helping people research their Jewish family history is a benefit,” he said.

Numerous online resources already exist for Jewish genealogy, including a Web site – – linking users to various related sites and databases.

On database on the site, called the JewishGen Family Finder, connects people doing research, so that those with the same surnames or towns of ancestral origin can share findings.

The center has created a genealogy institute to coordinate the organizations’ services to people researching family histories. It will help people navigate their way through the process by fielding queries, offering training workshops on Jewish genealogy and distributing fact sheets outlining what resources are available and how to use them, including unusual sources such as orphanage records.

“There are tons of records people don’t really know about or know how to use,” said Rachel Fisher, director of the institute.

“Someone might say ‘My grandmother said she was from such and such a town, but I have no idea where it is,’ or ‘I know the town and where it is, but how do I get town records?’ or ‘does YIVO have anything for me?'” said Fisher.

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