The Philadelphia archive has been independent since its 1972 founding, aided by local historians who worried that valuable records and artifacts would be lost. The Jewish federation provided funding and the archive began in a basement at an annual rent of $1. Most local Jewish archives are connected with a historical society or university.
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.preserved. On the other hand, they’re not really a funding priority for anybody.”
Brandeis University professor of American Jewish history Jonathan Sarna says everyone wants to see records preserved, but it's not really a funding priority.
Since the archives opened, the federation, synagogues, Jewish organizations and the prestigious Jewish Publication Society (JPS) have used it as a repository. Sarna says it is one of the best of local Jewish archives with "important collections of national significance."
Today, it is located in a downtown renovated factory.
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.
Despite the treasures, few visitors visit and an average day, according to staff, sees three or four visitors, if that many. It is mostly used by scholars, genealogists and some school groups.
in 2006, financial problems became severe (despite low rent, federation funding and some donations) and the board voted unanimously - "if reluctantly" - to send its holdings to Temple University's Urban Archives.
Nearby, the National Museum of American Jewish History, under construction and due to open in 2010, has raised more than $110 million of the $150 million needed. The major museum project has received funding from donors who might have given to the Archives if things were different.
Although the move will solve some problems, the Jewish archives is trying to raise funds to hire its own archivist. Some board members wish it could have been done differently and feel that not enough people know the archives exist and what the holdings contain.
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