In Search of Our Story: Jewish Day School Archives
I recently read a fascinating book by Laura Arnold Leibman titled The Art of the Jewish Family: A History of Women in Early New York in Five Objects. As the name of the book suggests, Leibman reconstructs the lives and experiences of Jewish women through an analysis of quotidian objects like commonplace books, silver cups, ivory miniature portraits and family silhouettes.
Museums often showcase ritual items like Torah finials and kiddush cups, but Leibman explains that popular conceptions about what is remarkable and important are a reflection of a wider phenomenon in which women’s voices and lived experiences are frequently silenced. These often-unconscious values are reflected not only in curatorial decisions but also in archives. Indeed, Leibman’s masterful reconstruction of Jewish women’s lives through objects, which involved a breathtaking amount of detective work, was necessitated in part by the sparse paper trail.
Leibman’s book reminded me of my current book project, a history of the Jewish day school movement in the United States. Just as women’s lives have been traditionally devalued by historians, archivists and curators, so too have educators often been overlooked. This seems ironic since schooling is a nearly universal experience in the United States, certainly since the passage of mandatory education laws. Likewise, most parents will attest to the central role that schooling plays in their families’ day-to-day lives: organizing their calendars and their social networks; focusing interactions between parents and children; serving simultaneously as a source of anxiety and a validator of self-worth.
And yet, historically speaking, we know very little about Jewish schools and other educational spaces, particularly about the process of teaching and learning. The artifacts that do exist, such as yearbooks, student newspapers, school projects and recordings of siddur parties and model seders, are more likely to be found in people’s attics or basements than in archives. Perhaps some of this is attributable to the feminization of the education profession. Likewise, with a few notable exceptions, experts have often overlooked the experiences of children when documenting people’s lives. Even with the more recent emphasis on “bottom up” social history, histories of childhood are few and far between.
Whatever the reasons for the silence of the archival record, educators themselves have often been unwittingly complicit in the lack of focus on preservation. Teachers and administrators tend to be present-minded, an orientation that is reinforced by the immediacy that pervades school life as well as the field’s sometimes unhealthy obsession with faddism. I recently visited with a newly retired master Tanakh teacher who sadly reported to me that he left over 50 years of lesson plans, projects and teaching ideas with his successor, only to learn that they had been unceremoniously dumped in the trash shortly after his departure. Did the recipient of these materials conclude that he had nothing to learn from the retired teacher’s decades of experience and penchant for creativity?
Then there is the tragic story I was told about a veteran Jewish educator stricken with inoperable cancer who cleared her entire home office into a dumpster because she didn’t want her husband to be saddled with the chore of sifting through her papers after she was gone. Perhaps some educators have internalized society’s devaluation of teaching and assumed that few would be interested in the documentation of their professional lives.
Prior to the pandemic, I visited one of the earliest Jewish day schools in the country, a pioneer in Zionist, Orthodox education, and learned to my horror that the records of the school’s early decades and the writings of its visionary principal were literally washed away during Hurricane Sandy. When I asked why the records were relegated to cardboard packing boxes and left on the basement floor rather than being donated to a local or national archival institution or even secured on an upper floor in fireproof filing cabinets, there was no coherent answer. I don’t think the school’s leaders were intentionally negligent, but historical preservation was not uppermost in their minds.
This is a shame, because the growth of the day school movement over the past century is one of the most important trends in American Jewish life. The archival record can shed light on the individuals who built and sustained these schools and the young people who spent most of their waking hours on their premises. An individual school’s records help to flesh out this wider Jewish educational phenomenon, while documenting the mobilization of a local community. Preserving a school’s history is also a way of connecting its present to its past. Documenting continuity and change over time simultaneously emboldens continued innovation while rooting a school community in core values and a shared narrative.
Some history-minded schools have used occasions like significant anniversaries to engage in preservation efforts. Consider, for example, Salanter Academy of Riverdale’s 50 Stories program, which was launched to coincide with its 50th anniversary. Likewise, I was recently contacted by a high school senior who was digitizing back issues of her school newspaper, dating as far back as the 1950s. These schools are ahead of the curve.
Happily, there are also a few archivists, like Sean Martin at Cleveland’s Western Reserve Historical Society, who have made it their business to solicit materials from local Jewish educational institutions. Similarly, there were a few visionary educators like Rabbi Joseph Lookstein, founder of the Ramaz School, Louis Newman, principal of Barrack (né Akiba) Hebrew Academy and an early director at Camp Ramah Wisconsin, and Shulamith Elster, head of school at the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School, who recognized the historic nature of their contributions and had the foresight to preserve their papers. Sometimes it is a historically minded stakeholder, like the remarkable Torah Umesorah official I met in southern New Jersey, who makes it their mission to save what others are prepared to discard. But these are the exceptions. Far more common are the stories I shared above. The historical records of tens of schools (and countless teachers) have been claimed by floods and fires, as well as more mundane occurrences, like relocations to new facilities. I know this because I’ve spent the past few years hunting down primary sources that will help me tell the story of Jewish day schools.
After spending a significant amount of time in basements, attics and in one case, a bathroom closet, I decided that it was imperative to launch a day school history preservation project. In cooperation with Brandeis University’s Archives and Special Collections department, the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Center for Studies in Jewish Education is in the process of developing a collection that will house records from day schools across the country and the organizations that serve them. We are looking for gifts from individuals as well as institutions and already have begun to receive materials from teachers, administrators and day school alumni. With sufficient funding, our hope is to digitize select older records, photos, yearbooks and more, where privacy concerns are not at issue, and make them available to the general public.
Our intention is to create a public-facing website dedicated to educating the wider community about the history of the day school movement, where some of these digitized documents and photos will be featured along with timelines, maps, oral history videos and a blog. We are inspired in part by the trailblazing work of Naomi Seidman and the online Bais Yaakov Project, which is dedicated to preserving and digitizing material related to the founding and development of the Bais Yaakov girls education movement. If you haven’t surfed the Bais Yaakov Project, you should check it out.
There is some urgency to this day school archives project. Scores of schools were created in the decades before and after World War II, and their founders have passed from the scene. Even those schools that were created since the 1970s are on the verge of losing their history to the passage of time. A few years ago, I was fortunate to meet with two of the founders of a leading liberal Jewish day school in the Midwest and engaged in an edifying discussion about the impact of the Six-Day War and changing public school demographics on their decision to found their school. But I wasn’t as lucky tracking down the prime movers behind an East Coast school that was founded the same year. The last of the founders, in her early nineties, succumbed in the midst of the coronavirus epidemic. Her historical memory and the records she might have had the foresight to preserve are likely irretrievably lost.
There is no reason why readers can’t take the initiative in preserving their own school’s history. If you are interested in discussing the possibility of donating materials to Brandeis University’s Jewish Day School Archives Project, I’d love to hear from you at firstname.lastname@example.org.
If the prospect of donating materials to Brandeis (or sending us your digitized records) does not appeal to you, perhaps you can explore a donation to a local historical society or organizing a school archive. (Creating a school archive and donating materials—or digitized copies—to Brandeis need not be mutually exclusive.) A school archive project can be a marvelous way to engage older students in exploring the history of their school and their wider community. It is also an effective means of introducing them to how history is preserved and written. With any luck, one or more of the students will emerge from the project with the mission and the drive to rectify the silences in the archival record.