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American Jewish Historical Society Records

 Collection
Identifier: I-1

Scope and Content Note

The American Jewish Historical Society Records document the workings of the society, including its activities, conferences and other programs, relations with other organizations and agencies, internal structure, and publications. These materials date from the society’s founding in 1892 until AJHS relocated its main office to the Center for Jewish History in New York City in 2000. Approximately 10 folders containing materials from after 2000 that were found in boxes of earlier records can also be found in this collection. The society has made two major moves in its history and did not historically have a records manager. Consequently, there are some gaps in the records. This collection contains all of the society’s records that were extant as of late 2011, when processing began.

Record types include correspondence with individuals and institutions, memoranda, committee and board meeting agendas and minutes, published articles and pamphlets, news clippings, newsletters, brochures, booklets, catalogs, manuscripts, financial and tax records, budget reports, grant applications and other grant records, exhibition records, personnel files, membership materials and ledgers, form letters, contracts, publicity and press releases, photographs, reports, constitutions and by-laws, programs, invitations and event announcements, and letters to existing and potential contributors and members. The collection is a great indicator of the growth in institutional records as the records dating from 1892-1979 were roughly equal in quantity to those dating from 1980-2000.

Please note that all records after 1980 are closed to the public.

Dates

  • 1883-2003
  • Majority of material found within 1892-2000

Creator

Language of Materials

The collection is in English, with some French, German, Spanish, Yiddish, and Hebrew.

Use Restrictions

Information concerning the literary rights may be obtained from the Director of Collections and Engagement of the American Jewish Historical Society. Users must apply in writing for permission to quote, reproduce or otherwise publish manuscript materials found in this collection. For more information, contact: please contact the Director of Collections and Engagement at mmeyers@ajhs.org

Historical Note

In an 1886 editorial in the Jewish Messenger, Abram S. Isaacs first proposed the idea of a society to promote the knowledge of Jewish contributions to American history and culture. Isaacs’ main goal was to provide information about distinguished American Jews, which would enable him to publish their biographies in his newspaper in order to combat the increase of nativism that accompanied the mass immigration of the period. In opposition to public claims that the Jews had had nothing to do with founding the country and were instead dangerous parasites, the more established Jewish community sought to show that Jews had helped to build the country since the beginning as true Americans and patriots. The hope was that, by uncovering historical sources, they could prove that Jews had been in the country from the beginning and had contributed to the American way of life.

The following year, an Anglo-Jewish Historical Exhibition was organized in London, England, in which historical documents and artifacts were collected and displayed at the Royal Albert Hall from April through June, 1887. In addition, several lectures were given on the various phases of Jewish history in England, which were subsequently published, as were many of the displayed documents and an exhibit catalog. American Jewish leaders took particular note of the exhibit and the resulting renewed interest in English Jewish history, including several who would go on to found the American Jewish Historical Society (AJHS). Chief among them was Cyrus Adler, who was then the Honorary Assistant Curator of Oriental Antiquities at the Smithsonian Institution, where he later served as the librarian. In an 1888 letter to Adler, Rabbi Bernhard Felsenthal of Chicago proposed founding a society in anticipation of the 400th anniversary of Columbus as a forum in which to assemble and publish data concerning the history of Jews and of Judaism in America for future historians.

In the spring of 1892, Cyrus Adler sent a letter to 175 prominent figures of the established American Jewish community, including academics, clergy from across the denominations, politicians, philanthropists, businessmen, educators, and librarians, as well as a few prominent Christian historians, inviting them to a meeting to form an American Jewish Historical Society. On Monday, June 7, 1892, forty men and one woman answered Adler’s invitation and convened at the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS), located at 736 Lexington Avenue in New York, for a lengthy meeting in order to determine the proper scope of the society’s mission. Although there were some heated disagreements, including whether to only gather together historical resources or to also write new articles and provide new interpretations, whether to focus only on Jews of the United States or to include the history of Jews everywhere, as well as other questions, those present at the first meeting agreed that the new society should focus on the roles played by Jews in the discovery, settlement and history of the country to prove that the Jews were good patriots and citizens. The central aims of the society were studying the history of the Jewish people in the United States and preserving the records documenting this history for the future.

At the inaugural meeting, Oscar S. Straus, a lawyer, merchant, diplomat, and, as Secretary of Commerce and Labor under Theodore Roosevelt, the first Jewish U.S. Cabinet member, was installed as the society’s president and Cyrus Adler as the Corresponding Secretary and Treasurer. The society held its first annual meeting on December 15, 1892 in Philadelphia and began publishing its journal, Publications of the American Jewish Historical Society (PAJHS), the following year. In 1899, the Jewish Publication Society (JPS), which Adler and several other society leaders had helped to found in 1888 and which had much of the same leadership as the society, was contracted to publish and distribute all AJHS publications. This perhaps partly answered Cyrus Sulzberger’s concern at the organizational meeting that the there was no need for the society to publish anything, seeing as there already was a Jewish publishing organization.

Originally, Adler and some of the other members assumed that the society would seek out and then publish all of the materials related to Jewish history in America in a few years and then disband the society. This idea was discarded once the true scope of the society’s undertaking was better understood. By 1896, Adler and Straus had both conceded that there was more material about the history of Jews in America than they had originally thought. Straus and Adler began appealing to various scholars and public figures, both Jewish and non-Jewish, to join the society. Straus also spoke at the first convention of the National Council of Jewish Women (NCJW) in New York City in 1896, asking them to join the society as well. In 1897, the seal designed for the society by a committee of Philip Barnet, Richard J.H. Gottheil and Mendes Cohen was used on the fifth volume of Publications of the American Jewish Historical Society (PAJHS), exhorting members in Hebrew to “remember the days of old.”

Oscar S. Straus’s presidency lasted from 1892 to 1898, after which he returned to his position as the United States’ Minister to the Ottoman Empire for 1898-1899, a post he had previously held from 1887-1889. In each of his presidential speeches delivered at the society’s annual meetings, Straus emphasized that the aim of the society was to gather data related to the history of the Jews in America in order to expand the public understanding of what constituted American history. He reiterated that the society was to be “not sectarian but American,” and that American Jewish history was American history, first and foremost, and should be described as such. Straus also maintained that looking to the past as a guide for the future was an act of patriotism.

When Oscar S. Straus returned to his diplomatic post, Cyrus Adler assumed the presidency, an office he would hold from 1898 to 1921, in addition to numerous other Jewish communal leadership roles. Soon after Adler assumed the presidency, on December 19, 1898, the society was legally incorporated in Washington, D.C. In 1899, the Jewish Publication Society, which Adler and several other society leaders had helped to found in 1888 and which had much of the same leadership as the society, was contracted to publish and distribute all AJHS publications. This perhaps partly answered Cyrus Sulzberger’s concern at the organizational meeting that the there was no need for the society to publish anything, seeing as there already was a Jewish publishing organization.

One of Cyrus Adler’s earliest projects as the society’s president was the planning of an American Jewish Exhibit from 1900 to 1902, which was based on the model of the Anglo-Jewish Exhibit of 1887. Adler was the chairman of the project and Jacob H. Schiff, Oscar Straus, Mayer Sulzberger, and N. Taylor Phillips were also involved, as was Joseph Jacobs of the Jewish Historical Society of England, which had been founded in 1893. In 1903 the society signed an official agreement with the Jewish Theological Seminary for a permanent home for the society and a repository for its books, manuscripts and articles at JTS’s new buildings at 531-535 W. 123rd Street Cyrus Adler, who was also the president of the board of trustees of the seminary, then redoubled his efforts to increase the society’s collections. In 1905, Congregation Shearith Israel in New York City and the society planned and sponsored the celebrations for the 250th anniversary of Jewish settlement in North America. Events included a Thanksgiving service at Carnegie Hall with ex-president Grover Cleveland as the keynote speaker, public meetings, religious services, and the publication of Adler’s short article celebrating the history of Jews in America, originally published in the Jewish Encyclopedia, another of Adler’s projects.

For the first years of the society, its main objective was gathering and publishing historical documents, mainly relating to Jews during the colonial period, which could prove that Jews had been present in the country from its beginning and had always been good patriots. The annual meetings were by invitation only and at these meetings, society members presented papers about the Jewish presence in early America, discussing what they had found and what research they had completed. These presentations were often focused on the wonderful accomplishments of the Jews of the past and Jewish contributions to American government, society and culture, especially as it related to any achievements of the author’s ancestors, and what both Americans and American Jews could learn from these Jewish achievements in the present. These papers and historical sources along with any rare and interesting acquisitions made by the society and articles solicited by the members were then published in Publications of the American Jewish Historical Society (PAJHS) and made up the majority of the journal’s contents.

At the 1908 annual meeting, several officers and executive council members, including J.H. Gottheil, Louis Marshall, Max J. Kohler, and A.M. Friedenberg, argued that the scope of the society’s publishing activities should include Jewish history in general, not only American Jewish history. This idea was strongly opposed by some of the other members in a disagreement reminiscent of the organizational meeting. A compromise was reached so that the main area of the society’s focus remained the United States but to this was added the history of Jewish emigration from around the world to the Western Hemisphere, including Canada, the West Indies and Latin America.

Cyrus Adler retired from the society in 1921, at which point A.S.W. Rosenbach, a bookseller, bibliographer and antiquarian from Philadelphia took over the presidency, a position he would hold until 1948. During Rosenbach’s tenure, the society and its publications returned to focusing on Jewish history in America from the time of Columbus through the Civil War, particularly concentrating on the colonial period and the Revolutionary War. The scope of the society’s publishing activities had widened slightly, particularly during World War I, when several articles about American Jewish efforts to aid overseas Jews were published in Publications of the American Jewish Historical Society (PAJHS), but Rosenbach insisted that, “this Society should stick to its own history,” and should refocus on the roles played by Jews in the earliest years of the country. As an antiquarian, Rosenbach was also interested in acquiring items documenting the material culture of the Jews, collecting not only books, archival documents and manuscripts, but also paintings, furniture, clothes, and dishes in order to get a fuller picture of American Jewish life.

In 1930, the Jewish Theological Seminary moved to its current location at Broadway and 122nd Street and on October 19th of that year, at the dedication of the society’s new rooms at the seminary, Rosenbach announced that the society would be hiring Edward D. Coleman as the librarian, the society’s first paid employee. In 1931, Rosenbach donated over 350 books and pamphlets that had been published in America before 1850 and that related to Jews or to their experiences on the continent, forming the A.S.W. Rosenbach Collection of American Judaica. It was in anticipation of this donation, as well as the society’s larger space at the new JTS building, that the decision to hire Coleman was made. Coleman worked as the librarian and archivist, as well as the editor of Publications of the American Jewish Historical Society (PAJHS), from 1931 until his sudden death in 1939. While the two rooms in JTS’s new building provided more space than the society had previously had, Rosenbach’s desire to acquire more documents and artifacts for the society led almost immediately to an initial first call for a separate space for the society to keep and display their holdings, a call he would continue to make for the remainder of his presidential term.

In the 1930s, the Depression, the death of several wealthy benefactors and a shift in donations that had previously come to the society toward aid for Jews overseas led to a difficult financial situation. By 1938, the society was almost completely out of money. Rosenbach’s handling of society affairs became increasingly insular and out of step with Jewish communal concerns as well as with modern American and Jewish historical scholarship. Publications of the American Jewish Historical Society (PAJHS), which had been published annually or, on a few occasions, biennially, was issued only every three or four years in the 1920s through the 1940s, including the 1943 volume on the plight of overseas Jewry, which was completely paid for by the American Jewish Committee. The AJC was founded in 1906 by many of the same individuals who were involved with the society, including Cyrus Adler, Jacob Schiff, Mayer Sulzberger, Louis Marshall, Max Kohler, and Simon Wolf, and had maintained a connection with the society ever since.

After Edward D. Coleman’s death in 1939, Isidore S. Meyer was hired to replace him in 1940, serving as the librarian from 1940 to 1962 and editor and archivist from 1940 to 1968. Rosenbach continued his collecting activities focused on the history of American Jewry but he also started to collect documentation of the rise of Nazism and of the Jewish experience in World War II. Rosenbach even declared in his 1940 presidential address that collecting these documents was the most important thing AJHS could do during the war as these documents provided sources for other organizations (although not the society itself) who could use them in their fight against anti-semitism. Rosenbach declared the society and the documents it had collected were the “final bulwark against anti-semitism.” In order to keep up with this collecting activity, Rosenbach continued to call for the society to find its own space, although this would not be financially feasible for quite some time.

In 1943-1944, the society sought financial help from the Council of Jewish Federations and Welfare Funds (CJFWF)as well as from several local Jewish federations in order to help support its operations. Rosenbach maintained that the society had provided so much help to other Jewish organizations by providing the documents to fight anti-semitism that these organizations should, in turn, help the society. However, only a small amount of money was raised. In November 1947, the National Jewish Welfare Board (NJWB) became the financial sponsor of AJHS, covering its budget and promising to solicit membership. The society agreed not to look elsewhere for funds but was otherwise independent. The following February, Lee M. Friedman, a Boston lawyer and author of American Jewish history, assumed the presidency of the society. At the same time, Philip Goodman, a rabbi and the executive secretary of the Jewish Book Council of America, became the executive secretary for the society, although he remained an NJWB employee. While plans for a Jewish Museum in Washington, D.C. never came to fruition, other aspects of NJWB’s sponsorship, particularly its membership drives for the society, were successful. General members were no longer required to be approved by the executive council. Instead, anyone who paid dues was eligible and membership increased to over 1,200 by 1951, after having hovered around 500 for many years.

One of the areas the National Jewish Welfare Board sponsorship specifically addressed was popularization of the society’s programs. As part of this mission, the society introduced a historical essay contest for college students, American Jewish History Week celebrations, traveling exhibits to Jewish Community Centers, and in-service courses on American Jewish history for New York City Jewish public school teachers. Popularization was deemed so important that it was added to the February 12, 1950 revised constitution as a specific objective of the society, joining collection, preservation and publication. Publications of the American Jewish Historical Society (PAJHS), which was a yearly journal but which had been published less frequently in the 1930s and 1940s, was reconfigured as a quarterly journal and once again appeared regularly starting with the 1949 issue. The annual meetings, which had been meeting every other year, and once with a three-year gap, were every-year occurrences starting with the 1949 meeting.

During his presidency from 1948 to 1952, Lee M. Friedman helped to reinvigorate the society and attracted a more professional caliber of articles for society publications, mainly from academics and historians. The foundation of the American Jewish Archives (AJA) in December 1947 by Jacob Rader Marcus on the Hebrew Union College (HUC) campus in Cincinnati highlighted the fact that the society was no longer alone in the field of collecting American Jewish history and would need to become more professional in order to compete. The narrow scope of topics allowed into Publications of the American Jewish Historical Society (PAJHS) under A.S.W. Rosenbach quickly expanded and the long-held policy not to publish anything controversial, political or anything that made it seem that Jews were different from other Americans, as well as to avoid current events was put aside. Soon, articles appeared covering the labor movement and mass production; the movie industry; political radicalism; the Jewish and Yiddish influence on American life and popular culture, art, drama, music, and literature; American pressure on Jewish life, customs, beliefs, and behaviors; an economic history of Jews, including German Jewish department stores and the Russian Jewish needle trade; and even articles referencing current anti-semitism. This was more in line with current historical writing trends, and this new attitude was reflected in Freidman’s claims that the society was aiming to “help America understand itself and to make American Jews understand themselves and their role and responsibilities as American” and that “American Jewish history in certain aspects is merely American history.”

Beginning in 1950, the National Jewish Welfare Board’s finances became a bit precarious and the leadership decided that the NJWB could no longer support the society as of 1951, at which point it dropped their sponsorship. While some of the expanded programming that had been introduced through the NJWB’s sponsorship was curtailed, several of the programs continued, particularly those under the direct purview of Philip Goodman, who stayed on as executive secretary until 1953, after which NJWB and AJHS were completely independent of each other. These programs included Jewish History Week and the in-service courses for Jewish New York City public school teachers, which Goodman continued to help organize for the society as an executive council member from 1953 to 1965. After the NJWB ended its financial support, the society looked to the Jewish Theological Seminary and B’nai Brith, among others, for help with fundraising, but nothing came to fruition.

In 1952, Salo W. Baron, a professor of Jewish History at Columbia from 1930 to 1963, was elected president of the society. Baron, the first professor of Jewish History at a secular Western university and widely considered "the greatest Jewish historian of the 20th century," continued much of the work that Friedman had started to make the society both more professional and more popular with the general public. Baron had been the driving force behind the founding of the Historian’s Circle in 1951, when he was a member of the Publications Committee and an executive council member and in 1953 he developed a relationship with the American Historical Association (AHA), which would lead to the society taking part in a joint session with the AHA at its annual meeting in December 1954. These joint presentations with AHA continued through the 1990s. The issue of finding more space for the society and the fact of JTS also needing more space for its collections continued to be raised at executive council meetings throughout the early and mid-1950s but the society’s finances were too poor for this to be feasible, despite small donations from local Jewish groups. Membership kept slowly increasing, however, and Publications of the American Jewish Historical Society (PAJHS) continued to become more scholarly as more professional and academic historians were sought out to contribute articles.

In the 1950s, as American Jews became more assimilated, the tone of some of the articles published in the society’s journal started to shift slightly. In the years before the society’s founding, the immigration of Eastern European Jews in large numbers had contributed to a rise in anti-semitic sentiments and public reactions. Many of the more established and acculturated Jews at that time expressed concern that the flood of immigrants would reflect badly on them and would expose all Jews to anti-semitism. Part of the society’s impetus to publish the earliest history of Jews in America was to prove that Jews were also good Americans and, just as the earlier Jewish immigrants had assimilated into society, so too would these new immigrants. By the 1950s, however, there was a concern that the Jews had in fact become too much like their non-Jewish neighbors. The journal’s aims now included articles about American Jews that served as a communal memory for American Jewry and created a sense of Jewish pride and preserved a Jewish identity against assimilation.

David de Sola Pool, Rabbi of Congregation Shearith Israel for 63 years and an important scholar and author on Jewish history and religion, was elected president in 1954. He continued Baron’s work to make the society more scholarly, culminating in a Conference of Historians in Peekskill, NY in September 1954, celebrating the 300th anniversary of Jewish settlement in North America. The joint meeting with AHA in December 1954, for which Baron had laid the groundwork, was the society’s first collaboration with another professional historical organization but the society has held numerous joint meetings, conferences and symposiums with other national, regional, ethnic, and religious groups since then. Jacob Rader Marcus, a long-time executive council member and vice president, became the new president in 1955. Marcus was a rabbi, author of numerous books on Jewish history and a professor at Hebrew Union College, as well as the founder of the American Jewish Archives. Historian, author and Reform rabbi from Philadelphia, Bertram W. Korn was elected president at the annual meeting in 1958, a position that he would hold until 1961. During Korn’s presidency, the Local Jewish Historical Societies Committee was organized to develop relationships and share resources between the society and smaller local historical societies. In 1960, Isaac Seligson, associate director of the Associated Jewish Philanthropies and the Combined Jewish Appeal of Greater Boston, was hired as the executive director of the society, a position he would hold until 1963.

Abram Kanof, a doctor and a professor of medicine in Brooklyn, assumed the presidency in 1961 and in that same year, both American Jewish History Week and the in-service course enrichment program for NYC public school teachers, which had lapsed in the previous years, were restarted, using some of the money from the Friedman will. With the September 1961 issue, Publications of the American Jewish Historical Society (PAJHS) was reconfigured and renamed American Jewish Historical Quarterly (AJHQ). In the following year, Nathan M. Kaganoff was hired as the librarian of the society and Isidore S. Meyer transitioned to the role of editor. Kaganoff, who served as the society’s librarian for 30 years, oversaw a huge expansion in the library and archives work of the society.

In 1957, Lee M. Friedman, the society’s former president, had died and left over $1.4 million for the society to find a permanent home. The fight over where the society’s new home would be located, which had been ongoing since 1958, almost as soon as the Lee M. Friedman bequest was announced, escalated in 1963-1964 when the society held a vote on where the society should be located. The three ideas that were seriously considered were New York, Philadelphia and Waltham, MA, adjacent to the Brandeis University campus, which had opened in 1948. Each location had positive and negative attributes and the campaigning by each city’s supporters was intense and led to a split in both the leadership and the membership as a whole. When the votes came in, the results were 43% to stay in New York, 10% to move to Philadelphia and 47% to move to Waltham. Several of the New York supporters brought legal proceedings against the society in order to block the move to Waltham. Leon J. Obermayer, a Philadelphia lawyer who would become the society’s president in 1964 and who was a strong proponent of the move to Waltham along with Abram Kanof, handled the legal fight, which lasted through 1965. Eventually some of those members who wanted the Society to stay in New York split off and formed the Jewish Historical Society of New York (JHSNY), founded in 1973. More information about the JHSNY can be found in P-979 Steven Siegel Papers.

During Leon J. Obermayer’s presidency, from 1964 to 1967, the society’s budget situation improved, largely due to the money from the Friedman will. Landing Day ceremonies were introduced in 1964 to commemorate the arrival of the first 23 Jews in New Amsterdam—a program that was ultimately taken over by the Jewish Historical Society of New York. Bernard Wax was hired as the executive director in August 1966 in anticipation of the society’s impending move to Waltham. Also in preparation for the move, Nathan M. Kaganoff conducted a survey in order to have an overview of the society’s holdings and then published these holdings in the society’s first catalog of manuscript collections in 1967. Philip D. Sang, a Chicago businessman and collector of American historical items, both Jewish and non-Jewish, was elected president in 1967 and soon afterward, on June 7, 1967, the society’s 75th anniversary, ground for a new building, designed to serve the society’s specific needs, was broken just adjacent to the Brandeis University campus.

In May 1968, AJHS completed its move to Waltham, MA, where long-time trustee Abram Sachar was Brandeis University’s founder and had been the president for the university’s first twenty years, from 1948 to 1968. A strong component of the society’s impetus to move to Waltham was Sachar’s promise to employ the university's academic resources in order to assist the society in establishing its new home. However, Sachar retired from the presidency just before the society’s new building opened, becoming first chancellor and then chancellor emeritus, both of which were fundraising positions for the university. Just before the move to Waltham, Isidore S. Meyer retired as editor of American Jewish Historical Quarterly and Nathan M. Kaganoff assumed the role of librarian-editor. The following spring at the 1969 annual meeting, Abram Vossen Goodman, a Reform rabbi on Long Island, was elected president.

In the 1960s and 1970s more colleges and universities began to award graduate degrees in American Jewish history, including Brandeis University, where the Near Eastern and Judaic Studies department had been founded in 1953. At the society’s annual meeting in 1970, for the first time, graduate students were allowed to present their work, in an attempt to increase the society’s popularity with younger historians. Also in April 1970, long-time vice president of the society Moshe Davis—a professor at the Hebrew University and founder and director of the Institute of Contemporary Judaism—organized a colloquium on America and the Holy Land. This was the first event in the America-Holy Land Studies Program (AHL), a collaboration of over 20 years between the society and the institute, which made American Jewish history, as well as Americans' historical interest and involvement with Israel, available to Israeli scholars and students. Davis led the AHL project, along with Abraham J. Karp, a Conservative rabbi, author and professor, who would be elected president in 1972, and Maurice Jacobs, who would be elected president in 1975 following Karp and was at the time an executive council member. The America-Holy Land Studies Program held numerous events in the United States and Israel and published seven books between 1977 and 1992 under the joint auspices of the society and the institute.

As American Jewish history courses continued to gain in popularity, several professors from Brandeis, as well as from other Boston-area academic institutions, became involved with the society and the library started an internship program for both graduate and undergraduate students. In 1973, the Academic Council (http://ajhsacademiccouncil.org/), composed of academics and professional historians, was established with Louis Ruchames as chairman in order to ensure that all society projects were historically accurate and professional. Although the money from the Lee M. Friedman will had been exhausted by the 1970s and the society was once again operating at a deficit, the U.S. Bicentennial in 1976 offered an opportunity to design several ambitious public programs, exhibits, lectures, and publications focusing on Jewish contributions to the American historic experience as well as what American Jews were contributing to present-day America. David R. Pokross, a Boston lawyer and philanthropist, was elected president in 1976.

In 1978, the first issue of the revamped journal, now titled American Jewish History (AJH), was published. It was edited by Henry L. Feingold, a professor of American Jewish history at Baruch College, and a member of the editorial board. The aim of refurbishing the journal was to make it appealing to a wider audience and make sure it was competitive with newer publications while still maintaining its scholarly tone and attracting the best scholars of American Jewish history. At the 1979 annual meeting, Henry L. Feingold was officially named the society’s editor, although Nathan M. Kaganoff would continue to serve as managing editor. At the same annual meeting, Saul Viener, one of the leading scholars of Southern Jewish history and the founder of both the Beth Ahabah Museum and Archives and the Southern Jewish Historical Society, was elected president, a position he held until 1982 when Ruth B. Fein, the president of the Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston and the Jewish Community Relations Council, was elected.

Morris Soble, a Chicago businessman, was elected president in 1985. During his term, the society inaugurated a major fundraising event, the Emma Lazarus Statue of Liberty Award, in 1986, the centennial of the dedication of the Statue of Liberty. Abram L. Sachar was the first honoree. The next two presidents of the society were Philip David Fine, a lawyer and real estate developer in Boston, who served from 1988 to 1990, and Ronald C. Curhan, a businessman and professor of marketing at Boston University, who was president from 1990 to 1993. Curhan was also former president David R. Pokross’ son-in-law. During both of their terms, from 1988 to 1995, former president Morris Soble and his wife, Eleanor, donated nearly four hundred 18th and 19th-century books and pamphlets relating to the American Jewish experience, forming the Soble Collection of Rare Books, as well as making a substantial monetary donation to the society.

In February 1991, Bernard Wax, who had been the society’s executive director since 1966, transitioned to a new position as the director of special projects. Michael Feldberg, an author and professor of criminal justice at Boston University and the president of the Boston-Fenway Program community service organization, was hired as the new executive director in September. Towards the end of 1991, Nathan M. Kaganoff, who had served as the librarian of the society since 1962, became ill. After his death in February 1992, Helen Sarna, who had been the librarian at Hebrew College for over 20 years before retiring in 1989 (and the mother of Jonathan D. Sarna, the chairman of the Academic Council), came out of retirement to become the director of cataloging. She would fill this position through 1994. The society celebrated its 100th anniversary at its annual meeting in Washington, D.C. in 1992. The annual meeting in 1994 was combined with a scholars’ conference sponsored by the Academic Council and was held at the society’s building in Waltham. The 1995 annual meeting was the last one, having been replaced by the scholars’ conference, which is held biennially.

Justin L. Wyner, a Boston businessman who was involved in numerous Jewish and civic organizations in Boston, was elected president in 1993 and would serve until 1998, the first president to exceed the three-year limit imposed after Lee M. Friedman’s term. It was during Wyner’s presidency that the first discussions about a central location for Jewish historical repositories occurred. In 1994 Bruce Slovin, the chairman of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, first raised the idea of a joint center with AJHS and the Leo Baeck Institute. Soon after, on the night of October 31, 1994, an electrical fire at the society’s offsite storage facility caused water and fire damage to much of the society’s periodicals collection. Despite fundraising efforts by Wyner and a National Endowment for the Humanities preservation grant, conservation efforts were only partially successful. Society leaders were even more determined to find adequate space for the society’s holdings.

Over the next few years, YIVO, AJHS and the Leo Baeck Institute—who were later joined by the Yeshiva University Museum and the American Sephardi Federation—developed plans for a shared location for all of their repositories in New York City. AJHS and some of its staff started moving down to New York in 1997, where they were based in an office in midtown Manhattan, while the Boston branch of AJHS stayed in the Waltham building. In 1998, Kenneth J. Bialkin, a New York City lawyer who was also involved in numerous Jewish causes and organizations, was elected president. AJHS moved into the Center for Jewish History (CJH) in December 1999 and the following fall, on September 13, 2000, the society held a gala for its opening exhibit, "Seeing Ourselves." The Center for Jewish History officially opened to the public on October 26, 2000.

Resources

Appel, John J., "Hansen's Third-Generation 'Law' and the Origins of the American Jewish Historical Society," Jewish Social Studies, Vol. 23 (Jan. 1961): 3-20.

Appel, John J., Immigrant Historical Societies in the United States 1880-1950, New York: Arno Press, 1980.

Gurock, Jeffrey, "From 'Publications' to 'American Jewish History': The Journal of the American Jewish Historical Society and the Writing of American Jewish History," American Jewish History, Vol. 81 (Centennial issue II, Winter 1993-1994): 155-270.

Kaganoff, Nathan, "The American Jewish Historical Society at Ninety: Reflections on the History of the Oldest Ethnic Historical Society in America," American Jewish History, Vol. 71 (June 1982): 466-85.

Kaplan, Elisabeth, "We Are What We Collect, We Collect What We Are: Archives and the Construction of Identity," The American Archivist, Vol. 63 (Spring/Summer 2000): 126-151.

Meyer, Isidore S., "The American Jewish Historical Society," Jewish Journal of Bibliography, Vol. 4 (1943): 3-21.

Report of Organization, Baltimore: American Jewish Historical Society, 1892.

Rock, Howard B., "The Early Years of American Jewish History: Publications of the American Jewish Historical Society and the Minute Books of Congregation Shearith Israel," American Jewish History, Vol. 99 (April 2015): 119-144.

Extent

225.4 Linear Feet (444 manuscript boxes, 2 OS1 boxes)

Abstract

The records of the American Jewish Historical Society, the oldest national ethnic historical organization in the United States, include correspondence of officers and staff as well as inter-office memos, multiple versions of the constitution and by-laws of the society, meeting minutes of administrative branches and committees, membership and financial records, reports, exhibit materials, records relating to the society’s library and archival holdings, press releases and newspaper clippings, and publications and newsletters created by the society. There are also materials from various programs, such as meetings and conferences, tours, lectures, awards and dinners, films, and educational programs.

Arrangement

An initial survey revealed a collection with no discernible overall arrangement. After consultation with the staff of AJHS it was determined that the main focus of the collection’s arrangement was to provide easy access to the records that would be consistent throughout the years. The original processing plan was to cover 1892-1967, when AJHS moved to the Brandeis University campus. The boxes containing the earlier materials were, for the most part, better-arranged and better-identified than the later records, particularly as the amount of records created each year began to increase. Most of the earliest records were found in boxes labeled in chronological order and were organized according to the office, program or individual which created or stored the record, although this was not always consistent. These earlier records were processed chronologically and afterwards the folders were put into series order. This forms the first part of the collection and can be found in boxes 1-150.

Later materials, particularly those from the 1970s onward, were often in boxes labeled with only a general date range, topic or document format. While most of the materials that were originally in folders were labeled in some manner, these folder titles were not always accurate descriptions of a folder’s true contents and the folders themselves were usually not arranged in any order within the box. Other boxes contained loose documents with no folders at all. These later records were processed as they were found in the boxes and, after the entire collection had been processed, boxes and folders were somewhat rearranged to correspond to series order. The records from 1968-2000, when AJHS relocated its main office to the Center for Jewish History, are intellectually arranged. Please note that all records after 1980 are closed to the public.

Materials were arranged based on the labels on the boxes and/or folders if the boxes were miscellaneous. Thus, items found within a box labeled, “Correspondence, 1970s-1990s” were placed in the Correspondence series while items within a box labeled, “Levy-Franks exhibit, 1986-1993” were placed with the exhibition records in Series III, even though the box contained some correspondence. Folder titles have been formatted to indicate the subseries or subsubseries in which they are found and given a title that reflected the bulk of the material in a given folder. While the folders themselves may have abbreviations, the titles in the container list have been written out fully.

Audiocassettes that were found in the collection are represented in the finding aid and given titles that make use of any information found on the cassettes or cases while also corresponding to the title format of similar materials. Thus, a cassette labeled, “Omaha – AJHS-NJHS Nat. Conf. Mtg.” is represented in the container list as “Annual Meeting—88th Annual Meeting—American Jewish Historical Society-Nebraska Jewish Historical Society National Conference—Audiocassette,” in accordance with the folder-naming conventions of this collection.

This collection has been arranged in three series which have been further divided into subseries and subsubseries.

Please note that all records after 1980 are closed to the public.

Series Arrangement

  1. Series I: Correspondence, undated, 1889-2001
  2. Subseries 1: President, 1892-1999
  3. Subseries 2: Vice Presidents, 1898-1993
  4. Subseries 3: Recording Secretary/Associate Secretary, undated 1889-1988
  5. Subseries 4: Corresponding Secretary/Secretary, undated, 1889-1991
  6. Subseries 5: Treasurer, undated, 1894-1988
  7. Subseries 6: Curator (Library and Archives), 1903-1974
  8. Subseries 7: Director Historical Information, 1953-1957
  9. Subseries 8: Librarian, 1931-1998
  10. Subseries 9: Editor, 1962-1993
  11. Subseries 10: Executive Secretary/Director, 1949-1999
  12. Subseries 11: Director of Special Projects, 1991-1993
  13. Subseries 12: Deputy Director, 1997-1999
  14. Subseries 13: Assistant Director, 1980-2001
  15. Subseries 14: Executive Council Members, 1892-1995
  16. Subseries 15: Executive Vice President, 1983-1984
  17. Subseries 16: Administrative Secretary, 1978-1986
  18. Subseries 17: Curator (Exhibitions), 1991-2000
  19. Subseries 18: Archivist, 1992-2000
  20. Subseries 19: Director of Development, 1989-1997
  21. Subseries 20: Director of Research and Institutional Operations, 1999-2000
  22. Series II: Administrative Records, undated, 1892-2002
  23. Subseries 1: Administrative Committees, 1901-2000
  24. Subseries 2: Business Records, undated, 1892-2002
  25. Subsubseries A: Accounting, 1892-2002
  26. Subsubseries B: Facilities and Personnel, 1948-1998
  27. Subsubseries C: Membership, 1892-1998
  28. Subsubseries D: Memoranda and Form Letters, undated, 1949-1983
  29. Subsubseries E: Governance and Planning Records, 1892-2001
  30. Subsubseries F: Reports, 1903-1993
  31. Executive Council/Board of Trustees, 1894-2002
  32. Series III: Committees, 1883-2003
  33. Subseries 1: Academic Council, 1973-2001
  34. Subseries 2: Art Preservation and Restoration (Exhibitions) Committee, 1900-1902, 1916, 1949-2003
  35. Subseries 3: Historians Circle, 1951-1966
  36. Subseries 4: Library and Archives Committee, undated, 1892-2001
  37. Subseries 5: Programming Committee, undated, 1892-2001
  38. Subseries 6: Publications Committee, undated, 1900-2001
  39. Subsubseries A: Committee Records, 1917-2001
  40. Subsubseries B: Publications, undated, 1900-2000
  41. Subseries 7: Publicity Committee, 1883-2000
  42. Subseries 8: Rabbinical Assembly, 1956-1961

Physical Location

Located in AJHS New York, NY

Acquisition Information

These records were accrued during the normal course of business.

Digitization Note

Box 109 Folder 30 and Box 333 Folder 4 have been digitized as part of an ongoing digitization-on-demand program at the Center for Jewish History.

Related Material

The personal and institutional records of individuals and organizations closely connected with the founding and operations of AJHS include, but are not limited to: P-7 Max James Kohler Papers; P-220 Oscar Solomon Straus Papers; P-16 Cyrus Adler Papers; P-141 Leon J. Obermayer Papers; P-905 Isidore Meyer Papers; P-862 Rabbi Phillip Goodman Papers; P-21 Bernard Felsenthal Papers; P-979 Steven Siegel Papers; I-527 National Foundation for Jewish Culture (NFJC) Records; I-69 Council of Jewish Federations and Welfare Funds (CJFWF) Records; I-337 National Jewish Welfare Board (NJWB) Records; and I-11 American Jewish Tercentenary Celebration Collection. There is also some material about the society in the Records of the Jewish Theological Seminary, RG 1 at the Jewish Theological Seminary.

In Spring of 2005, Rachel C. Lapidus—as part of her Museum Studies Program dissertation—published “The History of the Museum Collection of the American Jewish Historical Society, 1892-2004.” This volume may be found in the AJHS office reference collection and accessed with permission.

Separated Material

Photos have been removed to the AJHS photo collection. Materials related to the Haym Salomon Project have been removed and will be integrated into the Haym Salomon Collection, P-41. See Series I: Subseries 8: Librarian for more information about these materials. Audiocassettes found within the records have been removed to AJHS’s audiovisual collection but are represented in the finding aid. There are also a great number of audio and visual items in numerous formats in AJHS’s audiovisual collection for which the exact provenance is not known. It is quite likely that some of these materials relate to the records found in this collection. For more information about the audiovisual materials, please contact the Director of Collections and Engagement of the American Jewish Historical Society.

Processing information

The records from 1892-1979 were processed by Michael Montalbano from 2011-2013. The records from 1980-2000 were processed by Rachel S. Harrison from 2013-2015 as part of the Leon Levy Archival Processing Initiative, made possible by the Leon Levy Foundation.

Materials were refoldered and rehoused in acid-free folders and boxes. Rusty paper clips and staples were removed and documents were unfolded as space allowed. Documents have been taken out of binders and plastic sleeves. In keeping with minimal processing standards, the materials from 1968 to 2000 were intellectually rather than physically rearranged, as described in the arrangement note.

Disk images for thirty-three 3.5" floppy disks and one 5.25” floppy disk were produced using AccessData FTK Imager in December 2015. The disk images are in AJHS secure network storage space. The disks, which were generally unlabeled, contained word processing and database files from 1992-2001 and most duplicated items found in the collection. A few unique files have been printed and placed in folders.
Title
Guide to the American Jewish Historical Society Records, 1883-2003 (bulk 1892-2000) I-1
Status
Completed
Author
Processed by Michael D. Montalbano and Rachel S. Harrison
Date
© 2015
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description
English
Script of description
Latin
Language of description note
Description is in English.
Sponsor
as part of the Leon Levy Archival Processing Initiative, made possible by the Leon Levy Foundation.
Edition statement
This version was derived from AJHS-I1.xml

Revision Statements

  • April 20, 2020: TElder: post-ASpace migration cleanup

Repository Details

Part of the American Jewish Historical Society Repository

Contact:
15 West 16th Street
New York NY 10011 United States