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Aging Jewish archives find online future

Special to the Journal

Before being digitized, historical archives from the North Shore Jewish community sat in boxes in Lynn, unavailable for viewing.

Like many not for profit agencies fighting for a shrinking flow of cash, the tiny Jewish Heritage Center of the North Shore was trying to find a way to keep going. With a treasure of one-of-a-kind artifacts in its possession – but with no place to properly store them and no way to make those records publicly available – the group needed a partner with more space and more money. While still receiving a stipend from Combined Jewish Philanthropies in Boston, that funding had been significantly reduced when the North Shore Jewish Federation was absorbed by CJP. At the same time, there was waning membership and interest in the organization, according to its president, Alan Pierce, who also pointed to the organization’s “wanderings” – in a little more than a decade it had moved from Lynn to Marblehead to Salem to Swampscott to South Peabody and back to Lynn – settling last at Congregation Ahabat Sholom.

So, after 40 years and a series of name changes – it was previously known as the Jewish Historical Society of the North Shore – the story of JHCNS has arrived at a happy ending because it’s not an ending at all.

After receiving its latest name and updating its website in 2013, JHCNS was advised to look into collaborating with the organization in Boston with a similar mission. So this past October, the board and members of JHCNS officially voted to dissolve its independent agency status as a 501C3 corporation and to partner with an agency with the size and interest to take over, preserve, and best of all, digitize the records that have been sitting in boxes waiting to become part of the twenty-first century. Those records include comprehensive collections of memorabilia, records, photographs, videos, oral histories and articles, dating from the mid-19th century, including older copies of the Jewish Journal, according to Herb Selesnick, the former secretary of the JHCNS.

The new home for those records is with the Jewish Heritage Center at the New England Historic Genealogical Society, located at a prime location on Newbury Street in Boston. But it is the move into the digital era and onto a website that holds the most promise – visit the website digitalcollections.americanancestors.org and see just how easily enjoyed and studied various records like those that have been vigorously collected and protected by JHCNS through the years have become.

The JHCNS collections will become part of the broader NEHGS’s two million documents scanned, with over 600,000 currently accessible online in their digital archive, according to Judi Garner, director of the JHC at the NEHGS.

Garner explains the benefits of digitization as “basically two-fold: one, it is another medium for preservation, and secondly, it provides access and discoverability through online searching and may be viewed worldwide without the need for an onsite visit.” The NEHGS’s website, for general purposes, is americanancestors.org.

This digital access represents a big change already, explained Selsnick. “Previously we would mount the memorabilia on cardboard and take it around to the temples and other venues. We also felt we were competing with the other Jewish organizations for programming,” he explained.

So in the spring of 2013, Pierce, Selesnick, Zellie Kaplan, and George Rooks met with Garner to discuss collaboration possibilities and receive a tour of the NEHGS facility and a briefing on their operations.

They were impressed with what they saw, but at the same time, they felt they could offer Garner the opportunity to expand the AJHS-NEA collections to include the North Shore Jewish Community, Selesnick explained.

“After they enthusiastically embraced our proposal, we organized, packed and shipped almost one-half our 110-box collection to the Boston offices for processing, digital encoding and online and reading room access via keyword search and retrieval.”

A ketubah (marriage contract) in the collection of the Jewish Heritage Center at the New England Historic Genealogical Society in Boston.

After donating the original boxes, the JHCNS still wanted to remain an independent organization. “Our remaining collections were stored at Congregation Ahabat Sholom in Lynn. We were planning jointly to create a Lynn Jewish History Museum, exhibiting our Lynn collection in their building, so we withheld the Lynn portion from our 2013-14 donation to the AJHS-NEA.”

But when that did not materialize, he said, “We decided to give the rest or our collections to the JHC at NEHGS so that all our collections would eventually be processed, scanned, viewable online and physically accessible in the NEHGS’s reading room in Boston.”

Another decided factor is that they were also looking for an organization that could serve as their programming partner. It was not until last spring when AJHS-NEA decided to move beyond archival and genealogical research and launch the Jewish Heritage Center to serve as their programming arm, that steps toward dissolution begun.

Selesnick said that the new agreement included an opportunity for our members, supporters and friends to join the NEHGS family, and he will serve on JHC’s programing advisory council. “To help jump-start this exciting partnership, NEHGS will give each of our members, friends and supporters a six-month complimentary membership, and on May 7, will host an official welcome reception.

“The digital archive is currently open and free to the public, but in order to view actual documents, a researcher must contact them first and we will instruct them on how to gain access,” she explained. She said that they have had historians and genealogists use the digital archives from as far away as Austria, England, France and Israel. While most of the original archives are stored onsite at Newbury Street, or in a storage facility in Connecticut, the Boston Jewish Times newspaper can be viewed online.

Any new collections from the North Shore can be donated by contacting the JHC of NEHGS directly, Garner explained. The latest acquisition of JHCNS records should be processed and digitized in a year or two.

With mixed sentiments, Pierce described the wait for the moving van to arrive to carry away the last of the JHCNS records for the move to Boston.

“On that mid-winter day in January, Herb and I sat alone on a chair in the upstairs storage room of Congregation Ahabat Sholom, waiting three hours for an overdue moving van. Alone, not with boxes, but with the records of our cherished community history; memories recorded, memories preserved and memories awaiting their new home. We took turns sitting, not just waiting for the van, but as shomrim (sentries) standing watch over our materials ensuring that they would not be transformed to dust, but would continue to exist as a vital source of strength and inspiration for generations to come. This was, and will always be, our mission.”

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