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What is the New England Jewish Experience?

Jewish historical societies from around the region will discuss that at Jan. 24 Zoom conference

By Stacey Dresner

When Ken Schoen and his late wife Jane Trigere founded the Jewish Historical Society of Western Mass. in 1999, it was a labor of love. 

Spurred on by the merging of Springfield’s three Orthodox synagogues and the resulting documents and memorabilia that would need a new home, the couple began collecting all other sorts of memorabilia from the synagogues, day schools and other Jewish organizations around the Pioneer Valley, storing it in the 1930s firehouse in South Deerfield that became the JHSWM’s home.

A few years ago, Schoen began sending boxes of the historical society’s materials to the Wyner Family Jewish Heritage Center at New England Historic Genealogical Society in Boston.

“We had accumulated so much material here and we didn’t have the staffing, really, to fully archive it for the public and to put it online. We’re a modest operation,” Schoen explained. “We were always in touch with the Jewish Heritage Center and they said they had been collecting things from other communities throughout Massachusetts, and archiving in Boston, and they would be very happy to accept all of our collections.”

The JHSWM’s first shipment to the Jewish Heritage Center in 2016 was 30 legal boxes chock full of Western Mass. Jewish history. He and his board continue to send more boxes each year, including material from some of the closed and merged congregations as well as documents and photographs from Heritage Academy, donated after it was closed.

Schoen will now be getting even more of a hand with his precious historical cache as a member of the New England Jewish Historical Collaborative, headed up by the Wyner Family Jewish Heritage Center and including seven other New England Jewish historical societies.

The first-ever gathering of these organizations, “What is the New England Jewish Experience?” will take place during a Zoom conference on Sunday, Jan. 24. 

Besides Western Mass., the other organizations involved are Documenting Maine Jewry, the Jewish Cemetery Association of North America, Jewish Communities of Vermont, Jewish Federation of New Hampshire the Jewish Genealogical Society of Greater Boston, Jewish Historical Society of Greater Harford, and the Rhode Island Jewish Historical Society.

During the conference, representatives of the historical societies will hold a panel discussion where they will share information and resources within their organizations and discuss developing partnerships and programs on the New England Jewish experience.

Michael Hoberman, Ph.D., a professor at Fitchburg State University and author of New Israel/New England: Jews and Puritans in Early America and How Strange it Seems: Cultural Life of Jews in Small-Town New England, will give a keynote talk.

Hoberman says he will give an overview of the Jewish experience in New England, starting with the Colonial period, and ending with present day…”picking particular stories and highlighting certain communities, not because they are more important than any others, but to give people a flavor and a texture of the New England Jewish experience.”

“I’ll address some of the bigger questions about what is of value of the Jewish history specific to New England and if there’s anything unique about Jewish life in New England as opposed to Jewish life elsewhere in the world,” Hoberman said. “I am considering those kinds of questions. I don’t think I am necessarily answering them at the end because they are such broad questions, but I am trying to address some of the patterns in respect to the Jewish historical experience in the six states of New England.” 


Highlighting History

The Wyner Family Jewish Heritage Center was formerly the New England archive of the American Jewish Historical Society (AJHS). In 2015, the JHC formalized a collaboration with the New England Historic Genealogical Society (NEHGS) to enhance Jewish historical and genealogical research and to be a premier site for collection and preservation of Jewish history. In 2018, the center was named for longtime supporters Justin and Genevieve Wyner.

The idea to form a New England Jewish historical collaborative began nearly two years ago when the Jewish Heritage Center was approached by Harris Gleckman, one of the founders of Documenting Maine Jewry, an in-depth online archive of the history of Jewish families in Maine.

Gleckman brought up that some other regions around the United States have actively promoted the study of their Jewish history, for example, the Southern Jewish Historical Society, which has held annual conferences since the 1970s and has a website and extensive online archives from the Jewish communities of Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, South Carolina, Tennessee and West Virginia.

One of the photos donated by the Jewish Historical Society of Western Mass. to the Wyner Family Jewish Heritage Center archives shows this group of people gathering in August of 1908 for the bris of Samuel Freedman.

“The archives of some these historical societies and their academic resources are pretty well known and documented whereas there is so little awareness of New England Jewish history and the resources and organizations dedicated to the study of it,” said Rachel King, director of the Wyner Family Jewish History Center. “So the original concept for the conference was more of an academic one. We really wanted to organize ourselves so that we could highlight this history, and attract more scholars to use our resources when doing their research.”

At the Wyner Family Jewish History Center, those resources include two million historical documents, about Jewish families and organizations in New England. Work is ongoing to digitize the materials – so far nearly 700,000 of them have been digitized.

As the conference organizers began planning the event they realized there were other advantages to the historical society staffers coming together.

“As we started the talk, we also realized that there was just a great opportunity for us all to get to know each other,” she said. “We also just didn’t know what other organizations were out there in other states and even in some cases our own states. We didn’t know what each other had, in terms of collections and resources. So it just made sense to get to know each other and start talking about potential partnerships and collaboration that we can do together.” 

The conference was originally supposed to be held in-person last March, but as with most everything, Covid-19 forced the event to be postponed.

This gave the organizers more time to work on another of the goals – creating a new website with information about Jewish history in the various states in New England as well as a resource guide.

“When the conference didn’t happen we had many months to chat about all of this. So we decided to do a gathering online and because we had this extra time we said why don’t we get started on creating a resource guide, something that kind of pulls together everything that we all have about New England Jewish history and make it available for us to promote those resources,” King said.

The resource guide features listings of local Jewish historical societies, genealogical and other organizations involved, publications, collections and exhibits and more, state by state – “one stop shopping for where to find this information,” King said.

And while the original in-person conference was to be held for mainly the Jewish historical society staff in the Jewish Heritage Center’s limited space in Boston, the online conference allows for many more people log on and learn about New England Jewish history and the plans for the Collaborative. 

And that includes representatives of Jewish historical societies not yet involved.

“I would say this is pretty broad, but we are not claiming this is comprehensive. We are actually hoping that organizations will come forward and say, ‘We have fantastic resources, please include these as well.’ But we are really seeing this as a launch,” King said. “I’m excited to get started… We plan to stay in contact with each or any other groups or individuals who jump on board to talk about projects we can do together, perhaps organizing a more academic conference down the road. We want it to be the location where scholars and those in the public who are interested in learning more about New England Jewish history can visit and find what they are looking for.” 

Ken Schoen sees this collaborative as furthering his mission to save and protect Jewish history both locally and regionally. And he hopes those in the Western Mass. Jewish community will continue to donate any and all things Jewish.

“I just got a call the other day that someone had an old B’nai B’rith photograph from the 1930s with all of the different members, and did I want it. I said ‘Certainly!’ That’s the kind of material we want, photographs, even videos or DVDs of weddings or bar mitzvahs,” Schoen said. “We are thinking ahead. Just like S. Ansky went off into the Ukraine in 1912 to document Jewish life, he was realizing that things were changing. He was thinking ahead to the future. And now we have thousands of photographs he took of a world that has vanished. We’re thinking ahead for our future generations.”

 “What is the New England Jewish Experience?” will take place on Jan. 24 at 2 p.m. on Zoom. To register go to NEJEconference@nehgs.org.

Main Photo: A rabbinical convention in Springfield in 1905; another Western Mass. photo now in the Wyner Family Heritage archives.

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