Monday, November 17, 2008

Philadelphia Jewish Archive Center

After 36 years as a standalone organization, the Philadelphia Jewish Archive Center will be shutting down sometime in early 2009 in response to a budget crunch. Its collections, which span nearly 200 years of Philadelphia Jewish history, will be absorbed into the archives of nearby Temple University.

“This was a decision that we did not want to make,” said Carole Le Faivre-Rochester, the archive’s president. “We wanted to stay here and be our little independent institution as we have been for 36 years. But given the climate, and the fact that we’re an archive and not that popular in the Jewish community, we couldn’t do it anymore.”

The closing comes at a particularly difficult time for small non-profits — charitable dollars are becoming scarce amidst the economic downturn. In Philadelphia, the fundraising field has been further crowded by a massive capital campaign to build a Jewish history museum. But it appears that the center’s most fundamental problem is that archives simply aren’t a big draw for local Jewish visitors or donors.

In most cities, local Jewish archives are affiliated with larger institutions, typically a university or a historical society. But the Philadelphia center has been its own organization since it was founded in 1972 after years of agitation by local historians, who worried that irreplaceable records and artifacts were being destroyed. With funding from the local federation, the archive took space in a basement at the cost of one dollar a year. It soon became the repository for the records not only of the federation but also of synagogues, Jewish organizations, and, perhaps most significantly, the Jewish Publication Society.

“In terms of the quality of the material, it’s one of the best of the local Jewish archives,” said Sarna, who has used the material for his own research. “It has very important collections of national significance.”

The archives are currently housed in a renovated factory building in downtown Philadelphia. In the modern, climate-controlled room, thousands of carefully labeled and sorted gray boxes hold the story of Jewish Philadelphia: records from Congregation Rodeph Shalom, the first Ashkenazi congregation in the Western Hemisphere; the original resolutions of the Hebrew Sunday School Society, the first organization dedicated to American Jewish education; the first Jewish cookbook, published in Philadelphia in 1871; and the only known records of the immigrant banks that thousands of Jews used to buy tickets for their relatives immigrating from Europe.

But despite the wealth of history, the archives don’t draw much foot traffic, aside from scholars, genealogists, and the occasional school group. Staffers said that on an average day, the archives can get anywhere from three or four visitors to none at all.  (Source: Forward)

Click here to read the entire article and here to visit the archive website.

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