05 May 2007

Finding a home for history

The Jewish Standard's story about the Jewish Historical Society of North Jersey describes one man's quest to preserve the history of a town.

Jerry Nathans is the last guardian of Paterson, New Jersey's Jewish past. President of the JHSNJ, he's spent three decades collecting artifacts and information about the city 's (and environs) history.

Although the society was once a thriving group of 70 and sponsored lectures, exhibits and other events, Nathans is now alone as the caretaker of 150 years packed into 300 boxes.

It all began in 1978 when a woman came looking for information about her husband's grandfather, a Paterson rabbi in the 1800s. She went for help to the North Jersey Y, but the librarian realized nothing had been preserved. She put out a call for information on the history. Nathans and Reeva Isaacs began interviewing people and, in 1979, they transcribed nearly 100 interviews and the society was formed.

The story is very detailed and describes the experiences of Nathans in being just a few minutes late to rescue items that should be preserved, such as a photographer's collection of negatives which were thrown out because they were moldy; Nathans said they could have been washed and preserved. Another photographer closed his business, put everything on the curb, and it was gone before Nathans got there.

He’s written many letters asking for contributions to the collection, with few responses. When the newsletter was published, it ran a section listing new acquisitions, and Nathans always sent a thank-you note to donors, but, he lamented, people no longer see the society as a resource for preservation.

"I’ve questioned people and usually I am two minutes too late," he said. "I spoke to somebody in Bayonne and, unfortunately, before I contacted them they cleaned out their attic and threw everything out."

One hundred years of the Jewish Publication Society's American Jewish Yearbooks was found by Nathans in a dumpster outside the Paterson Museum.

One treasure is a 15,000-page autobiography of Rabbi Abraham Shindling who spent 10 years in Paterson, and which has a wealth of information about families in the city's early 1900s..

Paterson’s past depends on the society’s future.

"At least we’re preserving it," Nathans said of the collection. "That’s the important thing."

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