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.
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.
Object No. 2012.08.01 Donor: Rabbi Arnold Saltzman Description: Tallit bag (15"x10.5") made of burgundy velvet with a red, yellow, green, and blue flower trim. Features Star of David design.
Background: This hand-sewn tallit bag was used by three generations of Rabbi Saltzman's family. The bag, which likely dates to the 19th century, was handmade by Saltzman's maternal grandfather, Samuel Holzman, a tailor who emigrated from Russia to the United States.
In Holzman's bequest, each of his 18 grandchildren received something he had made for them from fabric. Their grandmother presented an item to each grandchild after their grandfather's death. Saltzman received the bag prior to his bar mitzvah in 1961.
Saltzman’s father, Max, was a tailor who left Poland for America in 1904. By age 18, he owned a clothing manufacturing business in New York. As a fellow artisan, Max so admired his father-in-law's tallit bag that he soon "borrowed" it from his son. Not until Max's death in 1983 did his son reclaim the precious object.
Rabbi Saltzman used it through his remaining 22 years as Adas Israel Congregation's cantor and it accompanied him on his numerous trips to Israel. Once it became too fragile to use, Saltzman, now a rabbi, donated it to the Jewish Historical Society. The tallit bag is a wonderful reminder of beloved relatives and a world gone by.
A few weeks ago, we boxed up around 70 books about Judaism or Jewish history that we had accumulated in the office. We wondered if we'd find one person who'd want them all, but we needn't have worried -- Rabbi Howard Gorin stepped up and very enthusiastically, too!
Not only does Rabbi Gorin serve the local congregation of Tikvat Israel, he's also involved Jewish communities throughout the world. He'll sort through these books and send some to developing Jewish communities in Nigeria, some to a new Judaica collection in a university library in India, and he'll keep others for book sales, whose profits will help ship other books. When Rabbi Gorin picked up the books from our office, we were intrigued to learn about their potential futures.
If you're interested in Rabbi Gorin's various book projects, visit his website and read this article.
Our Collections Committee held a workday in the JHSGW archives on Monday. Volunteers worked for several hours sorting through dusty old boxes from the Rabbi Tzvi Porath collection, acquired by JHSGW in 2004.
Sam and Gail discovered a large series of papers including sermons, correspondence, and memoranda from the Jewish Welfare Board documenting Rabbi Porath’s chaplaincy during World War II. Brenda and Janice found dozens of Rabbi Porath’s sermons as well as event programs, invitations to the White House, and correspondence. Lenny uncovered dozens of photographs of Montgomery County Jewish Community and Ohr Kodesh, where Rabbi Porath served from 1952 to 1984 (see the photo below of Rabbi Porath with Speaker of the House Tip O'Neill!)
Meanwhile, Elsie continued her ongoing project with the Society’s institutional archives from the 1960s and 1970s.
It’s amazing how much a small group can get done in a few short hours! If you’d like to volunteer in the archives, fill out our volunteer application.
To honor our 50th anniversary, we invite you to peek into our archives each month.
From the Archives...
Archives Record Object #: 2008.18.6 Donor: Sandra and Dr. Clement Alpert Description: 6.5”x10” black and white photograph. Rabbi Louis Gerstein, Amy Gerstein (left) and Cecile and Dr. Seymour Alpert (right) with President Gerald Ford (center) on July 12, 1976 in the Oval Office of the White House.