By Stacey Dresner
What is the New England Jewish experience?
A collaborative of experts will join together to discuss that question during the first-ever webinar of New England Jewish historical societies on Sunday, Jan. 24.
The New England Jewish Historical Collaborative, which is organizing the free webinar that is open to the public, is headed up by the Wyner Family Jewish Heritage Center in Boston, and includes a representative from each of the New England states, including Elizabeth Rose, executive director of the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Hartford, and reps from the Jewish Historical Society of Western Mass., 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, and the Rhode Island Jewish Historical Society.
During the Zoom webinar, the directors of the historical societies will hold a panel discussion in which they will each talk about the Jewish history of their state, share information about the resources available 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 will give a keynote talk.
This event was originally slated for March 2020 as an in-person conference of historical society directors, but as with most everything, Covid-19 forced its postponement.
Elizabeth Rose had just succeeded the retiring Estelle Kafer as head of the Jewish Historical Society when the March conference was put on hold. She took over where Kafer left off in helping to organize the event and to plan Connecticut’s contribution to the panel discussion.
“We’ve had some great meetings and a lot of discussions about themes in New England Jewish history and the best way to connect with our audiences,” Rose said. “When it was going to be a conference it was going to be more internal networking for Jewish history organizations and now it’s really turned into more of an event for the public. I think that that is a nice outcome. And the discussions that we had over the months have been nice. We’ve gotten to know each other and each other’s perspectives on Jewish history around New England as well. It’s been interesting to think about the questions of identity, and our similarities and differences across the different states in New England.”
Hoberman, 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, says that in his keynote talk he will give an overview of the Jewish experience in New England, starting with the Colonial period and ending with present day.
“I’ll address some of the bigger questions of what is of value in the study of Jewish history specific to New England and whether there’s anything unique about Jewish life in New England as opposed to Jewish life elsewhere in the United States or elsewhere in the world,” Hoberman said, adding, “I’m trying to address some of the patterns with respect to the Jewish historical experience in the six states of New England.”
The idea to form an entire New England Jewish historical collaborative began nearly two years ago when the Wyner Family 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, head quartered in Marietta, Ga., 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.
“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 Heritage 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 Jewish Heritage Center, those resources include two million historical documents, about Jewish families and organizations in New England. Work is ongoing to digitize the Jewish Heritage Center’s archives – 700,000 of the two million historical documents there have been digitized so far.
A few years ago, Ken Schoen, director of the Jewish Historical Society of Western Massachusetts (JHSWM), and a member of the team organizing the conference, began sending boxes of his collected materials to Boston’s Jewish Heritage Center.
“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,” Schoen explained.
The JHSWM’s first shipment to the Jewish Heritage Center in 2016 was 30 legal boxes chock full of Western Massachusetts Jewish history. He and his board continue to send more boxes each year.
As director of the small independent historical society that he and his late wife, Jane Trigere built themselves from the ground up, Schoen said he appreciates the goals of this new New England collaborative.
“They want to create a unified body that so we can help each other, support each other,” he said.
Indeed, as the organizers have been planning the conference, they have realized that there are several advantages to the staffs of various historical societies 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,” King 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 postponement of the conference gave the organizers more time to work on another goal – creating a new website with information about Jewish history in the various New England states, as well as a resource guide.
The resulting resource guide, which will be showcased at the conference, features listings of all of the local Jewish historical societies, genealogical and other organizations, publications, collections and exhibits and more, state by state.
For the both the conference and the resource guide, Rose included information not only from the Hartford’s Jewish historical society, but from other areas of the state.
“I reached out to the Jewish Historical Society of Greater New Haven and the Jewish Historical Society of Fairfield County, which are the two other organizations in this state. And I have been in touch with the Connecticut Historical Society in Hartford and the University of Connecticut archives to make sure I was listing all of the collections each of those institutions have on Jewish history,” she said.
After the debut of the resource guide and website on Jan. 24, the collaborative will continue to work together on more projects.
“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.”
“What is the New England Jewish Experience?” will be held on Sunday, Jan. 24 at 2 p.m. on Zoom. To register, visit NEJEconference@nehgs.org.
Main Photo: Elizabeth Rose, director of the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Hartford.