BOSTON – “Libraries are something; archives are someone,” said Léon de Laborde, the head of Emperor Napoleon III’s imperial archives over 160 years ago in France.
New England Jewry’s past is preserved in the stately Newbury Street headquarters of the Wyner Family Jewish Heritage Center. The minutes of board meetings from the former Temple Beth El in Swampscott or the Lynn chapter of B’nai B’rith from decades ago can read like a screenplay, and somehow you can hear the voices of real people asking important questions.
In 2015, the New England archives of the American Jewish Historical Society joined forces with the New England Historic Genealogical Society to create the most comprehensive collection of New England Jewish artifacts in existence: more than 2 million records in the archives, and 600,000 searchable documents in the digital collection.
In 2018, the center was renamed the Wyner Family Jewish Heritage Center after a generous gift from philanthropists Justin and Genevieve Wyner. “We are really proud and pleased that we have this New England collection here, because it’s a really distinctive story, and it’s different from a lot of the history that might be told at AJHS in New York,” said Rachel King, director of the center in Boston. “So much of people’s understanding of Jewish history is filtered through that classic New York Jewish lens, but in fact we have really distinctive, important New England Jewish history stories to tell.”
Many local Jewish organizations hand over all their old records to the JHC for safekeeping, which has resulted in an astonishing diversity of material. In addition to comprehensive records of New England Jewish synagogues and institutions, the JHC boasts a collection of fascinating trinkets, like the blacksmith tools from Samuel Tanzer, Peabody’s only Jewish blacksmith; kosher butcher knives from the 19th century; a letter from Helen Keller, thanking a Jewish organization for donating to her charity; the diary of a young Hungarian Jewish immigrant who fought during the Civil War; old ketubah marriage certificates; and the records of the Rabb family and the Stop & Shop empire they built.
In addition, the JHC offers the full research resources of the New England Genealogical Society. The JHC employs professional genealogists who provide expert help in any sort of project, and annual membership allows discounted rates for their services.
“We’re known for the expertise of our staff, so people can come here and have consultations with genealogists and have access to genealogical database and resources,” said King. “They can also use the Jewish Heritage Center’s various databases and resources. For example, if you have information about family members who maybe were active in a particular neighborhood or company in the 1930s, you can look that up.”
North Shore Jewish history plays a prominent role in the JHC’s collection. In 2013, the Jewish Heritage Center of the North Shore, which had been based at Congregation Ahabat Sholom in Lynn, decided to merge with the center in Boston because of shrinking revenue and a need for the larger organization’s digitization technology. Volunteers shipped 110 tightly sealed boxes of history to Newbury Street.
The collections include the records of local synagogues, both existing and defunct, Boy Scout troops, the Jewish Federation of the North Shore, the Jewish Community Center of the North Shore, local chapters of Hadassah, Jewish War Veterans posts, and more.
Herb Selesnick of Salem, who served as the secretary of the former Jewish Heritage Center of the North Shore and sits on the advisory council for the Boston JHC, believes that it is a mitzvah to preserve the past.
“There is a Talmudic observation that a person never dies as long as their name is still mentioned, so every time you mention the name of a deceased relative, you are performing a mitzvah by keeping their memory alive.”
For more information, visit jewisheritagecenter.org.