The Center for Jewish History: Linking Past with Jewish Future
By Gad Nahshon
It was a day of celebration, a special day of satisfaction for a devoted philanthropist who has dedicated his life to promote Jewish heritage, Jewish history and Jewish ethnicity. This man has committed himself to Jewish continuity and to the survival of the Yiddish culture. His name is Bruce Slovin. On Thursday night, October 26, 2000, he officially opened to the public and to scholars, the new intellectual conglomerate on 15 West 16th Street (phone: 212-294-8301), Center for Jewish History.
The Center is a unique organization with a unique mission, including five societies or institutions of Jewish history, learning and adult education, the future library of the Jewish Congress, 100 million documents, 500,000 library volumes, tens of thousands of artifacts and art works. Indeed the Center's motto is "500 years of Jewish continuity linking the Jewish past with the Jewish future."
Bruce Slovin managed to mobilize many people. They came to help him give life to his brainchild: uniting Jewish organizations under one roof! We need Jewish unity. We need a crusade to enrich our scholarly world. Slovin and his board members managed to raise millions of dollars and were able to mobilize the city and state of New York.
The Center will enrich the cultural life of the Big Apple. Of course, we need more Jewish scholarly institutions to join this Center. We need greater unity; we must also integrate the religious movement in America. The reception at the opening of this Center was too modest. Bruce Slovin was happy, as was the chairman of the American Jewish Historical Society, the Jewish leader Kenny Bialkin. Among the happy crowd which came to celebrate the official opening of this center was its director Dr. Lois S. Cronholm, whose background is very diverse in composition: education, Biology, management, economic, finance and business experiences. She is now dedicated to the success of this unique center of intellectual Jewish life in New York. But the soul of this center has been and will be Bruce Slovin, the Founding Father and the Center's Chairman of the Board of Directors.
Slovin prays for unity and Jewish cooperation. There is too much disunity inside the American Jewish establishment, too much unnecessary divisiveness. He prays that the Center will attract scholars from all over the world, Jews and Gentiles alike. We should show the world the greatness of the Jewish civilization, we should re-enforce Jewish identity and values. We should have scholars on hand to research; they should be the cherished customers of the Center!
Slovin will, always, think of ways in which to improve the services to these scholars. Of course, adult education is an important mission, but there are other organizations that engage in this field. The Center should create a desk, which will serve as a referral service for those who are looking for lecturers or researchers. We must link the scholarly world with the establishment's ideas or thinking. Let us hope that Slovin understands these goals.
Slovin has the right background: he is, today, the President and Director of the Revlon Group Inc., chairman and director of Revlon Holdings Company. He has extensive experience with economic-business leadership (i.e. Hanson Trust Limited, Kanniller Corporation). Slovin, also, has experience in the field of law. He has a unique experience in philanthropy and non-profit organizations.
Mr. Slovin has worked extensively for numerous not-for-profit organizations. Since 1994, he has been a trustee of the Beth Israel Medical Center and a trustee of the 104 year-old Educational Alliance, a settlement house, community center and social work agency in New York. Mr. Slovin also chairs the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research and is a member of the Board of Directors of the American Jewish Historical Society. Both of these organizations are now housed at the Center for Jewish History. In addition, Mr. Slovin is a trustee of the park East Synagogue and the Morris Jumel Mansion, Inc., a historic house and museum. From 1991 to 1996, he was a member of the Board of Directors of Circle in the Square Theatre, the longest running non-profit theater on Broadway.
Bruce Slovin graduated from Harvard Law School in 1960 with a J.D. in Corporate Law and Taxation. He earned his B.A. in economics from Cornell University in 1957 and attended the Columbia University Graduate School of Business Administration from 1959-1961.
A resident and native of New York City, he is married to Francesca Cernia Slovin and is the father of Karl, Eric and Karen.
The Establishment of the Center
The Center for Jewish History emerged from a vision of a unique central repository for the cultural and historical legacy of the Jewish people.
The participants are five institutions that have been renowned contributors to the study of the Jewish people. The first institution is the American Jewish Historical Society, founded in 1892, the national archives of the Jewish people in America, housing the world's largest collection of documents on American Jewish life and history. Anther included is the American Sephardi Federation, founded in 1984, serving as a coordinating and resource body for all the Sephardic communities in the U.S. Also included is the Leo Baeck Institute, founded in 1955, recording and preserving the history of the Jewish communities in German-speaking countries from the 17th century until their tragic end under Nazi rule. The Yeshiva University Museum, founded in 1973, acclaimed for its ability to educate through dynamic exhibitions of historical and artistic dimensions is one of the five participants. The fifth institution is YIVO Institute for Jewish Research founded in 1925 to record the history of Eastern European Jews and to pioneer in the study of their language, literature, and culture. These five partners have joined together to provide access to the history of the Jewish people on a global scale.
News of the creation of this unprecedented Center stirred immediate interest by a number of other Jewish organizations. While the Center does not anticipate adding new partners, other groups are developing important associates, adding to the collections at the Center. For example, the reference materials of the Jewish Genealogy Society of New York will be housed within the Center Genealogical Institute. Hadassah has given custody of its archives to the American Jewish Historical Society. The Gomez House, the oldest extant Jewish residence in North America, has been placed under the stewardship of that Society. These valuable associations will expand both the collections and the service to the Center's constituencies.
The Mission of the Center
The Center's mission, founded on the historic missions of its five partners, provides a broad spectrum of opportunities to learn about the Jewish experience. The collections are available through a Reading Room and exhibition gallery to those who generate scholarship, to those who create exhibits and documentaries, and to the public. The Center also will be a major New York attraction because of its lectures, conferences, educational classes, and cultural performances, including a Film Series and a Music Series.
An integrated collection and management system will provide ready access to collections that, prior to the creation of the Center, were dispersed among the separate organizations. This integrated archival/library system, which is considered a national model for strengthening historic research, will exist in parallel with the continued development of each partner's unique historical mission.
Symbolically, the Center was created out of four existing buildings; the unifying design reflected the complex needs of the organizations. The creation of the Center, architecturally and organizationally, was a physical challenge, requiring the melding of tradition and history with modernity.
Millions of archival documents, a half million books, and thousands of three dimensional objects needed to be stored under conditions that would preserve these treasures even as they were made accessible to researchers. The building had to include state of the art technological infrastructure that would transform on-site accessibility to worldwide availability. The building had to provide comfortable staff offices, secure stack areas, and aesthetic public areas. There had to be a reading room that would welcome users, sound rooms to study rare musical treasures, provisions for the multitude of a people intent on understanding their genealogy.
The Center building almost completed meets the various complicated needs of the multiple institutions. The rapid transition to full function as each organization takes its place and the reaction of all to the aesthetics and functionality of the facility affirm the founding vision of the Center.
The Reading Room, open to the public since 1999, has an open stack reference collection and a library collection and archival documents accessed by staff. The Reading Room staff is comprised of multilingual, experienced professional librarians, archivists, and historians, available to provide help and guidance.
The Center's auditorium, equipped with state-of-the-art technology, superb lighting and acoustics, is used for lectures, a variety of cultural performances, films and videos, and videoconferences.
Together with the adjacent Great Hall, which is excellent for dinners and receptions, these public areas are available as rentals by individuals and outside organizations for appropriate events. Here you can find the following Jewish "treasures":
- ( Memorabilia of Jewish athletes
- Thomas Jefferson's letter denouncing anti-Semitism
- Judaica objects confiscated by the Nazis
- Torah Scroll of the Baal Shem Tov, founder of Hassidism
- Letters of Sigmund Freud and Albert Einstein
- Records of American Jewish soldiers who fought in WWI
- Inquisition trial records from Mexico City in the 1590's
- Largest complete collection of American Jewish newspapers
- Sheet music and recordings of your grandmother's favorite Yiddish songs
- HIAS (Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society) records
- 1,000 Family Trees dating back centuries
- Hadassah's archives
Organization of the Center
The policies of the Center are under the jurisdiction of a Board of Directors composed of representatives of each partner organization. Bruce Slovin is the founding Board Chair. Each partner also has its own Board and each has an Executive Director who is housed at the Center: Dr.Michael Fedlberg, American Jewish Historical Society; Elizabeth Mizrahi, American Sephardi Federation; Carol Kahn Strauss, Leo Baeck Institute; Sylvia Herskowitz, Yeshiva University Museum. Each organization has a highly skilled professional staff, focusing especially on the collection, preservation, exhibition, and utilization of the holdings of the organization.
Vice President Lois Cronholm directs the Center's activities; Center offices include building operations, business office, human resources, technology, public relations, development, and program coordination.
The Center is envisioned as an institution that will serve many constituencies, including: senior scholars; students; teachers of Jewish history, literature, and culture; persons interested in their family history; persons seeking intellectual entertainment focused on Jewish history; a public attuned to the significance of the historical experiences of religious, cultural, and ethnic groups; an aging generation intent on enhancing the ties between their cultural history and the future generations. To ensure the value of these roles, a number of advisory groups have been created.
An Academic Council, representing the needs and interests of researchers, is composed of leading scholars of Jewish History and Culture: Elisheva Carlebach (Queens College); Robert Chazan (NYU); Henry Feingold (Baruch College); Jane Gerber (CUNY); Michael Meyer (HUC); Pam Nadell (American University); Alvin Rosenfeld (Indiana Univ, Bloomington); Lawrence Schiffman (NYU); Chava Weissler (Lehigh); Beth Wenger (Penn); and Steven Zipperstein (Stanford).
An Advisory Board on the Integrated Collection Management and Access System is made up of leading scholars, librarians and archivists: Scott Bennett (Yale-Sterling Library); Susan Davis (Univ Wisconsin); Hasia Diner (NYU); Douglas Greenberg (Shoah Foundation); Werner Gundersheimer (Folger Shakespeare Library); Larry Hackman (Truman Library); William Joyce (Princeton Firestone Library); Stanley Katz (Princeton); Kevin Proffitt (American Jewish Archives); V. Chapman Smith (N.Y. State Archives); Peter Wosh (NYU).
The Center, anticipating a strong interest in family histories, established the Center Genealogy Institute. Directed by Dr. Rachel E. Fisher, the Institute was guided by an advisory board chaired by Karen S. Franklin, Director of Family Research at Leo Baeck Institute. Other members are: Dr. Michael Feldberg, Director of American Jewish Historical Society; Frank Mecklenburg, Director of Research and Chief Archivist, Leo Baeck Institute; Aviva Astrinsky, Head Librarian, YIVO; Miriam Weiner, President of Routes to Roots; Estelle Guzik, President of Jewish Genealogical Society, which will be housed at the Center; Steve Siegel, Archivist 92nd Street Y, Diane Spielmann, Reference Librarian, Leo Baeck Institute.
Support for the Center
The Center is funded through donations. The importance of the center has awakened the generosity of hundreds of individual donors, and has appealed to city, state, and federal agencies, that recognize the cultural contribution that the Center will make. The Center was the recipient of a unique, prestigious Kresge challenge grant of $1 million. The integrated collection and management system has been inaugurated through a $2 million grant from the National Historical Preservation and Records Commission of the National Archives. The names of those who have made the Center possible are permanently inscribed on the Donor Wall in the Center's 16th Street lobby.
Contacting the Center
The Center is located at 15 W. 16th St., NY, NY 10011.
The central phone no. is 212-294-8301.
The website address is www.centerforjewishhisory.org.
Email addresses for the Partner Executive Directors are on the website. Vice President Cronholm's phone is 212-294-8305 and her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Contact Lynne Winters, 294-8307 (email@example.com) regarding rentals of the facilities and tours of the Center.
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