CT News

The new head of Hartford’s Jewish Historical Society reaches out to a broader audience

By Stacey Dresner  

WEST HARTFORD – Just as Elizabeth Rose took on the role of executive director of the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Hartford last spring, the Covid-19 pandemic began.

“My first job was really to cancel everything we had planned for the spring, but then we started to think about what we could do,” she says.

And that, it turns out, was a lot. 

Many of the public programs the historical society presents lend themselves to online formats.

“We were able to partner with a couple other organizations… and then we began doing some of our own programs on Zoom so we actually had quite an active spring and summer and that’s worked out quite well,” says Rose.

The JHS’s recent Zoom offerings have included programs on Jewish labor organizers in the Hartford area, Beatrice Fox Auerbach, Auer Farm and their connection to Eleanor Roosevelt, and a spotlight on Hartford’s historic Jewish cemeteries with Hebrew Funeral Association director Leonard Holtz and Lisa Vaeth of the of Jewish Federation’s Association of Jewish Cemeteries.

And in conjunction with the The Emanuel Synagogue and Congregation Beth Israe, both of West Hartforl, and the Jewish Historical Society of Fairfield County, and in honor of the 100th anniversary of the 19th amendment, the JHSGS helped bring in Pamela Nadell, author of a new book on American Jewish women, which Rose said was “very well attended and appreciated.”

But Rose said another important task has been to inform the public about what the Jewish Historical Society really does through its email newsletter.

“So I’ve made each of those into kind of a little capsule of historical information and photographs, and interesting facts. We’ve highlighted oral history from our collection that we’re in the process of digitizing of which there are more than 1,000. People can go on that and listen to snippets of our oral histories. We’ve thrown in recipes and links to programs. So we are trying to make a strong connection to our members at a time when we can’t meet in person.”

For last few months, the historical society has also been working on two online exhibitions: One is “’Mapping Hartford Synagogues,” an interactive map that tells a mini-story about each local synagogue; the other is an online exhibit featuring the late entertainer Sophie Tucker, a native of Hartford.

Meet Elizabeth Rose

Growing up in Chevy Chase, Maryland, Elizabeth Rose took advantage of the rich historic resources in the Washington, D.C.

“Both of my parents loved history and my mother was actually pursuing her PHD in history throughout my entire childhood so that certainly was formative,” she said. “My father worked in the Justice Department. Sometimes he would take me in with him and drop me off and I would go to the Museum of American History and just wander around. I especially loved the exhibit of the First Ladies’ gowns!” So that certainly had an impact on me.”

Rose says she gained a “very liberal, strong social justice orientation” from her Reform Jewish background attending Temple Sinai in Washington, D.C.,

She went on to study history at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania.

“I became interested in learning more about Jewish women’s history,” she says. In seeking out a research topic that was related to immigrant Jewish women,  she says, “I was guided by an archivist towards a collection at a Jewish settlement house in Philadelphia that ran a day nursery for immigrant families…They kept records on each family that came to them for assistance in the day nursery so it was sort of the beginnings of social work. It was a really fascinating window onto the lives of immigrant families in Philadelphia during that time.”

In studying towards her graduate degree in history from Rutgers, she returned to that Jewish resettlement house archive and wrote her dissertation on daycare in Philadelphia using those records.

“The ‘discovery’ of women’s history was just really just emerging in the 1980s as a field and that was really exciting to me,” she recalls. “So that made me want to do it as a career.”

Rose got a job in the history department at Vanderbilt University in Nashville teaching Women’s Studies and U.S. History. Then, in 1999, when her husband, Jack Dougherty, got a job at Trinity College as director of Trinity’s Educational Studies program they moved to West Hartford. Rose also worked at Trinity for a few years teaching and running The Hartford Studies Project at Trinity, which helped faculty and students engage with the community in Hartford.

“We did a lot of public programs with organizations in the city to help document the history of the city and share it with the public,” she says.

She went on to work on a Federal grant contract at Central Connecticut State University (CCSU). The Teaching American History Grant was intended to help K through 12 teachers improve their teaching of American history.

“It was providing professional development for teachers so that they would have a stronger foundation in history and also just get excited about the different kinds of history that could be taugh,” she says. “We connected teachers with academic historians who are experts in their fields and provided books for them, and primary source materials and helped them come up with lesson plans that would work in their classrooms.”

While working at CCSU for five years, Rose receive her library degree from Southern Connecticut State University. She was then appointed library director and archivist at the Fairfield Museum and History Center for eight years, working on exhibits on regional history including on varied subjects ranging from witchcraft to the Emancipation Proclamation to rock-and-roll music in Fairfield County.

The commute to Fairfield and West Hartford was a long one and Rose began looking for a job closer to home. 

Serving as president of the Connecticut League of History Organizations, Rose was familiar with the Jewish Historical Society, and she was impressed with the organization’s work.

“My first direct experience with the Jewish Historical Society happened just a year ago when we [my husband and I] went on the ‘Back to the Old Neighborhoods in Hartford’ bike tour. I was impressed with the relationships with the churches that used to be synagogues; how welcoming they were to us,” Rose notes. 

Rose was a perfect candidate for the position left open after the retirement of longtime executive director, Estelle Kafer.

Rose said one of the goals of the JHSGH is to collect and archive the stories of people in the local Jewish community – not just “prominent” individuals and not just those living in West Hartford – but Jews from all different  backgrounds and from throughout the greater Harford area.

In addition, on Oct. 13 the JHSGH will present “Responding to COVID-19: A Community Panel,” with local leaders reflecting on how they and their organizations have responded to the pandemic and how it is reshaping the greater Hartford Jewish community. 

“We trying to document what it’s like to live in these times, during COVID and everything that’s going on this year,” Rose said.

Next year will be the Jewish Historical Society will celebrate it’s 50th anniversary.

“We hope that sometime next year we’ll be able to celebrate our anniversary, hopefully, in a physical space,” she said, noting the importance of history and its impact on us now, and the future generations of the Jewish community.

“History is one of our common bonds as a society,” she said. “In the case of Jewish history, it helps us to connect with our peoplehood.”

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