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Archiving the Southern Jewish Past – in Houston and Charleston

Posted by: Julia Eichelberger | July 3, 2018 | No Comment |

Here’s another Narrating the South post, this one by a recent Research Fellow at the College’s Pearlstine/Lipov Center for Southern Jewish Culture, Dr. Josh Furman.

Dr. Josh Furman, Director of Houston Jewish History Archive, Rice University

The devastation that Hurricane Harvey brought to Houston in late August 2017 was keenly felt in the neighborhoods of Meyerland and Willow Meadows, which are home to many of the city’s Jewish institutions and families.  In the aftermath of the storm, hundreds of homes in the area and at least three synagogues suffered serious flood damage.  The archival collections of United Orthodox Synagogues (UOS) of Houston and Congregation Beth Yeshurun, which include photographs, synagogue bulletins, board minutes, rabbinical correspondence, and rare commemorative books, were severely affected by the several feet of water that inundated each building.  Additionally, many of the personal possessions of Houston’s Jewish families of interest to scholars, including letters, journals, photographs, and memorabilia, were damaged by flooding and are at risk of being discarded and lost forever.

The study of Jewish life in Houston and South Texas touches on themes of central importance to understanding ethnic history in the United States — immigration, acculturation, adaptation, socioeconomic mobility, and interfaith relations.  At present, unfortunately, the rich history of this Jewish community in the nation’s fourth-largest city remains relatively undocumented, and there are several small South Texas Jewish communities where the need to preserve historical records is urgent.

In the weeks following Hurricane Harvey, together with my Rice colleagues in the Program for Jewish Studies and the Woodson Research Center in Fondren Library, we laid the groundwork to create the Houston Jewish History Archive (HJHA).  The mission of the HJHA is to collect, preserve, and make accessible the documents, photographs, artifacts, and memories that tell the story of Jewish life in Greater Houston and South Texas.

As we approach Harvey’s first anniversary next month, the HJHA is already home to over sixty archival collections.  Our holdings include synagogue and institutional records, such as those of United Orthodox Synagogues and the Evelyn Rubenstein Jewish Community Center, and family records, such as portraits, marriage and confirmation certificates, and correspondence.  Among the most unique and significant artifacts recovered so far is a World War II banner that was made for Congregation Beth Jacob to honor men and women serving in the armed forces.  We also received an Alex Bregman game-used bat from the Houston Astros, an exciting addition to our collection that recognizes the contributions of the team’s Jewish third baseman to last year’s World Series title.

Last month, I had the pleasure of spending several days at the College of Charleston with Dr. Dale Rosengarten, curator of the Jewish Heritage Collection at Addlestone Library, and Harlan Greene, head of Special Collections.  For more than thirty years, Dr. Rosengarten has been working tirelessly to record oral histories and build an archive that preserves the legacy of South Carolina’s Jewish community.  She has spearheaded and collaborated on projects that document the experience of Jewish South Carolinians, from the groundbreaking exhibit and book A Portion of the People (2002), to more recent digital projects such as The Holocaust Quilt, which tells the stories of Charleston’s Holocaust survivor community in an interactive multimedia format.

While shadowing Dr. Rosengarten and her colleagues for three days, I had the opportunity to explore the Jewish Heritage Collection in all its breadth and depth, immersing myself in the audio files, paper archives, and digital exhibits.  More than that, in our conversations, Dale and Harlan generously shared advice on a wide range of topics, drawing on their decades of experience in building collections and processing them, designing exhibits, and winning project grants.  Dale and her staff also introduced me to the latest innovations in technology used to transcribe oral history interviews and make them more useful to researchers.  I came away from my time in Charleston inspired by all that they have accomplished, and grateful to have such talented and passionate partners in the work of documenting local Jewish history in the southern United States.


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