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A Peek Inside the Office 0 Comment(s)

When I was internship-shopping this past spring, I was mainly looking for two attributes: a place where I could get a good grasp of how a non-profit organization functions while also satisfying my interest in history.  At the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington (JHSGW) I got both. The tasks I handled stretched across multiple aspects of the organization – from developing a new tour of the Jewish side of H Street, NE, to compiling a report of potential architect firms to build a new museum. 

My first project at the JHSGW was cataloging photographs into the database, a task much more exciting than what one might presume. Not only did I learn a great deal about Washingtonians’ roles in fighting for Soviet Jews’ rights, but I learned how to find background information and articulate the photographs’ context into the descriptions so that the photos could be more fully interpreted and understood.  And that was just day 1. 

By my third day, I was attending a conference with the executive director, Laura Apelbaum, who spoke on what it takes to build a museum in the 21st century; she even asked for my help on how to improve the lecture for the next occasion.

Perhaps my favorite project was developing the new walking tour on H Street, NE. The project consisted of heavily researching the history of the neighborhood, with a particular focus on the many Jewish-owned family businesses that were located there.  I was tasked with the responsibilities of organizing this information and creating a draft outline of the tour itself. I worked alongside the curator, taking a field trip out to the street to examine the area and conducting an oral history interview to learn more about the street’s Jewish history.

In most of the projects that I was assigned I was treated more as a coworker than as an intern. This allowed me to get a more personal experience out of internship and gave me a clearer idea of how the JHSGW functions. My boss, Wendy Turman, the Director of Collections, was constantly checking in with me to make sure that the work I was doing was in line with my interests, which made me take away more from the experience. Furthermore, Claire Uziel, Special Programs Manager and my neighbor in the office, was always there to point me in the right direction whenever I got stuck (side note – Claire knows everything there is to know about everything). But, most importantly, everyone in the office was constantly giving me feedback on my work. This helped me keep improving throughout my time here, thus making this experience educational, but it also allowed me to have a greater contribution and impact throughout my internship. 

Whether you are reading this because you are trying to decide if you want to intern here (or know someone who might), or you just want to get a little inside scoop of what goes on inside the office, the most important thing to realize is that there are always a lot of projects that need to get done. So, your contributions – whether it is in the form of an internship, volunteer work, or a donation – goes a long way and makes a real difference.  

Ilan Levine is a rising senior at Union College (Schenectady, NY), working on a B.A. in History.

A Day in the Life: Reflection on My Internship 0 Comment(s)

Director of Collections Wendy Turman quips that she never knows what to expect when she answers the phone at Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington. The Society has many functions: answers about life-cycle events of Jewish Washingtonian ancestors, organizes programming events and walking tours, or recently the State Department called to confirm details about a Jewish veteran of Normandy for the anniversary of D-Day. Similarly, a day in the life of a JHSGW intern is full of adventures and surprises.

I love being an intern because I feel like Mystique, the shape-shifter in X-Men who can mimic any role. Beyond mimicking though, the intern has the opportunity to become each role. During my time at JHSGW, I have been an archivist, editor, and a writer, deliverer of challah, paper-folder, paper-cutter (cutting paper and getting cut by paper), historian, researcher, tour guide, and deliverer of brochures. I have spent most of my time learning archival arrangement, description, and organization, but like any life experience, small details become highlights: caramel coffee, quickly mastering the postage machine, slowly mastering the photocopier, delivering challah for Jewish American Heritage Month in May, and select pieces that caught my attention in the archives.

I assisted with the papers of Rabbi Tzvi Porath, Rabbi Marvin Bash, Martin Miller, and the National Jewish Democratic Council. I appreciated the opportunity to learn archival techniques by engaging with these charismatic figures. I blogged about a few of my findings, including a Hebrew note from Golda Meir to Rabbi Porath, as well as the story of the bar mitzvah of 70-year-old Harry Koenick in 1976. Yesterday in the archival material of Rabbi Porath, I read Jewish Digest, a digest of general Jewish publications, from 1959, which included a piece about Otto Frank, as well as a series of essays on what qualifies a Jew.

Do you notice brochures in hotels?  Do you know how brochures arrive at hotels?  Interns. Last Monday, I thoroughly enjoyed delivering "Downtown Jewish Washington" walking tour brochures to most of the hotels in downtown D.C. It was truly my privilege to discover each beautiful hotel and share a bundle of our walking tour brochures with them.

Although I have learned archival description, I can barely describe the fantastic work environment at JHSGW. In the white office building across from Adas Israel historic synagogue, Claire, Laura, Mary Ann, Wendy, Sam, and Zachary are a terrific team. They each contribute their background and expertise, and it is amazing how much six people do. I have been beyond fortunate to work with them. Before this summer, I had professional experience in Philosophy and Politics but only academic experience in History. As an undergraduate History and Philosophy double major hoping to enter a History PhD program directly after college, my objective for this summer has been to gain professional experience in History, specifically archival work. I applied to JHSGW because I am passionately interested in Judaism, History, and Washington, D.C. This experience has exceeded my high expectations.

Rebecca Brenner is a senior at Mount Holyoke College, working on a B.A. in History and Philosophy.

An Afternoon of Artistic, Cultural, and Historical Exploration 0 Comment(s)

EE/JCA students engage in discussion. 

On Tuesday, we had the pleasure of hosting the inaugural class of the Experiential Education and Jewish Cultural Arts (EE/JCA) program from The George Washington University for an afternoon of artistic, cultural, and historical exploration. Professors Jenna Weissman Joselit and Carol B. Stapp led their students and colleagues into JHSGW’s historic 1876 synagogue (the Lillian & Albert Small Jewish Museum) for the program on the Society today and in the future as it develops into a regional museum. Director of Collections Wendy Turman started by providing the students with basic information about JHSGW, including the history behind the synagogue and the current activities of the Society.

President Grant seems to want to join the discussion.

The students appreciated the period-specific layout of the synagogue, from the structure to the life-size Ulysses S. Grant cut-out in the corner to commemorate the president’s visit to the opening in 1876. While life-size Grant never ceases to capture my attention, the EE/JCA students offered valuable insight about the architecture and fine details of the synagogue. Then, everyone had the opportunity to explore the outside grounds and the interior of the building, including the balcony on the second floor where Orthodox Jewish women once prayed, which is usually off-limits to visitors.

Professor Joselit waves down from the balcony, joined by Professor Stapp and EE/JCA Project Director Allison Farber.

Wendy Turman shows where the synagogue will move – across the street from the FBI's DC Field Office in the background.

Despite the oven-like weather, we all ventured to the future location of the synagogue, which will move down the road in a few years (the second time since 1969). Upon our return, Curator Zachary Paul Levine led a discussion about how the space appears to visitors and how it might appear as part of the Society’s future museum. Students engaged with issues regarding how to arrange information in a museum: chronologically or thematically. Finally, Wendy expanded on current activities of the Society, such as arranging the archives of Rabbi Tzvi Porath and analyzing artifacts, including a bracelet from Camp Louise. For me, the major highlight was Zachary’s presentation of a signed Beatles photograph from the Washingtonian Jew who hosted the first Beatles concert in the United States. This photograph caught my eye online when I was applying to summer internships, so it was amazing to see it up close in person (and I got to carry it back to the office).

I am thoroughly enjoying my internship at JHSGW, and I loved learning more about the Society through the eyes of the EE/JCA students. We were only one stop on their busy schedule, but it was a fantastic afternoon.

Rebecca Brenner is a senior at Mount Holyoke College, working on a B.A. in History and Philosophy.

Harry Koenick: Bar Mitzvah at 70 0 Comment(s)

Last week, I was sorting the bar and bat mitzvah records of Rabbi Tavi Porath from Congregation Ohr Kodesh. Even after an informative, inspiring experience at the Soviet Jewry exhibit by the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington at the D.C. Public Library, I could not imagine this particular story.

Harry Koenick was born in Russia in 1906. He escaped the Bolshevik Revolution by fleeing with his family to the United States in 1920. Although Koenick longed to perform his bar mitzvah at age 13 in 1919, famine, epidemics, and preparation for immigration kept him from this milestone. According to an article from The Washington Star, Koenick survived the typhoid epidemic that killed his mother in 1919, but it left him in poor health for a while. What is more, he was always hungry because of the famine.

Koenick settled into the United States and deeply appreciated his life with his wife and children. Throughout his life, he was very involved at Ohr Kodesh with Rabbi Porath. According to The Washington Star, “He has blown the shofar – a ram’s horn used in major Jewish holidays – at Ohr Kodesh for 27 years. He has recited the Bar Mitzvah service – but not as a formal Bar Mitzvah – at least two dozen times. But never, never was Harry Koenick the traditional Bar Mitzvah boy.”

In 1970, Koenick visited his hometown in Russia. He discovered the fate of all the Jews who grew up with him, according to the article mentioned above, “The German army had rounded up what was left of Shatsk’s Jewish population in the 1940s, stood them atop a hill three miles outside of town, and shot them, their bodies falling into a pit filled with lime.” During his visit, Koenick decided that he wanted to have a formal bar mitzvah at Ohr Kodesh when he turned 70. Specifically, he wanted a tune that he remembered from his childhood to ring from his new home congregation in the D.C. area.

On December 11, 1976, Harry Koenick was the traditional bar mitzvah boy at Congregation Ohr Kodesh with Rabbi Porath. He heard the tune from his childhood in his new home congregation. This event exemplified the warm American reception of Soviet Jewry, especially under the leadership of Rabbi Porath. The archives of Rabbi Porath contain extensive material from this event, including articles, correspondence, invitations, photographs, programs.

Rebecca Brenner is a senior at Mount Holyoke College, working on a B.A. in History and Philosophy.

An Initial Encounter with the Archives of Rabbi Tzvi Porath 0 Comment(s)

On the first two days of my internship at the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington, I was very pleasantly surprised to dive into the archival materials of Rabbi Tzvi Porath. I had the opportunity to learn archival organizational skills by sorting a special selection of his materials. Rabbi Porath was a prominent Jewish figure in Greater Washington in the second half of the twentieth century. His letters and other archival material reveal a man who reached out to community members at times of celebration, such as anniversaries and holidays, as well as times of sorrow, such as death and the Iranian Hostage Crisis. As the spiritual leader of the Ohr Kodesh Congregation from 1952 through 1984, Rabbi Porath displayed boundless charisma. He brought together community members and corresponded with American Presidents, Israeli Prime Ministers, and other important leaders.

I have sorted Rabbi Porath’s archival material into categories, including the presidential administrations of Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Ford, Carter, Reagan, and Clinton; the presidential inaugurations of Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon; correspondence with Israeli Prime Ministers Meir, Begin, and Rabin; correspondence with United States Supreme Court Justices O’Connor and Arthur Goldberg; a category for family or personal correspondence; and then I sorted the significant pile of remaining material, according to decade.

Although Rabbi Porath seems to have written most of his correspondence during the 1970s, the material from the 1957 Inauguration of President Eisenhower stands out to me. There is so much material from this historic moment that after I finished sorting, I actually felt as if I had attended the Presidential Inauguration of 1957. I learned that both the rabbi and his wife had tickets to the ball, ceremony, and parade, but only one ticket permitted entrance into the Capitol rotunda. Furthermore, I found that the guidebook, invitation, press release, program, and tickets from the weekend are each unique pieces of history. Rabbi Porath had all these items because he proudly served as Co-Chairman of the Religious Participation Committee. Here is a card from the Inaugural Committee of 1957 thanking Rabbi Porath for his valuable contributions in that role.

Note to Rabbi Porath from Golda Meir

In the fall of 1975, Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir addressed Rabbi Porath in Hebrew, “I was impressed with the artistic work of Ms. Marker and naturally am pleased… I send you and your congregation greetings for a good year, a year of peace for our people.”  She referred to a photograph of a bust of Meir that the rabbi had sent to her. I visited the final resting place of Meir at Mount Herzl in Israel last January, and I admire her as a strong female leader, so I appreciated the opportunity to engage in her correspondence with charismatic American spiritual leader Rabbi Porath.

Overall, Rabbi Porath emerges from this material as a lively figure who consistently reached out to community members in need. The archives contain various cards and letters that he wrote to community members who lost a loved one or needed his help. Strikingly, there was little to no change in his attitude or tone, whether he was addressing community members or world leaders. Rabbi Porath engaged members of his congregation and the surrounding community with the same level of earnestness that he used to address Americans Presidents and Israeli Prime Ministers. With invaluable hand-written notes and various content, the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington is fortunate to possess the archival material of this extraordinary Washingtonian Jew.

Rebecca Brenner is a senior at Mount Holyoke College, working on a B.A. in History and Philosophy.