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Jewish Philadelphia’s History Goes Online

February 19, 2014 By:
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Records like bank receipts for immigrants’ steamship passages can be found in the archives.
Thanks to a new digitizing initiative at Temple University, a huge, little-seen swath of Philadelphia’s Jewish history will soon be just a click away, according to the archivist in charge of bringing the data from the Philadelphia Jewish Archives online. 
 
“There’s a lack of awareness about what we have” available in the archives, Jessica Lydon said after a lecture to the Jewish Genealogical Society of Greater Philadelphia on Feb. 9 at Main Line Reform Temple. “I’m looking to try and change that.” 
 
Lydon, an associate archivist at Temple, has been responsible for processing, cataloging and preserving archival material from the collection over the last two years. 
 
The collection was originally gathered by the Philadelphia Jewish Archives Center, an organization founded in 1972 to “obtain important historical records about the Philadelphia Jewish community, and classify and make available information for scholarly research and other educational purposes,” according to its website.
 
In 2009, the center donated its vast archives to the Special Collections Research Center of the Temple University Libraries in what current PJAC co-president Isadore Kranzel called an “economic decision.”
 
“Nonprofits are very difficult to maintain, and we wanted to make sure we had a permanent home,” Kranzel explained. He added that the move brings the archives closer to scholars who have an interest in exploring subjects such as Soviet Jewry or the Jewish community during World War II.
 
In her lecture at the Wynne­wood synagogue, Lydon outlined the four main resources that constitute the majority of the collection: steamship passage ledgers; obituaries from the Jewish Exponent; records from the Association for Jewish Children, which merged with Jewish Family Service in 1983 to create Jewish Family and Children’s Service; and records from the Neighborhood Centre, a settlement house in Queen Village formed at the turn of the 20th century to help new immigrants to Philadelphia.
 
According to Lydon, the steamship passage ledgers, chronicling who went to and from the United States, are the most popular content used for research purposes and were the first records from the Jewish archives pegged for digitization as part of Temple’s push to get information online.
 
The collection boasts 50 ledgers from Philadelphia’s immigrant banks, such as Blitzstein Bank and Rosenbaum Bank, that contain names of ticket purchasers and holders, ports of entry and departure, fees and other information.
 
The online collection “creates a level of access and availability to people that would never have access to it” otherwise, she said. “Someone halfway across the world can use it.”
 
Since the 2009 transfer, PJAC has stayed actively involved with the collection by encouraging local Jews to donate new materials, raising funds for further research and continuing to promote awareness of the archives’ existence and importance.
 
The archives “are important to maintain the Jewish history in Philadelphia and to understand the changes that have occurred in the area,” said Kranzel, 82, who lives in Center City with his wife, Myra, and has been involved with PJAC since the 1970s.
 
Kranzel, who became co-president in 2013, alongside Rhena C. Kelsen, noted that the archives contain a “very strong collection of Soviet Jewry movement and immigration records” as well as records of Sephardi immigrants, who were among the first Jews to arrive in Philadelphia in the 18th century.
 
Though Lydon hopes the digitizing process will get “younger folks interested in using the material for research,” she acknowledged that not all of the material will make it online.
 
“There are limitations with that through time and resources and money,” she explained, adding that “copyright is a big issue.”
 
For more information, contact PJAC by calling 215-925-8090 or email: philadelphiajewisharchives@gmail.com. You can also browse digitized content from the collection at library.temple.edu/collections/scrc/philadelphia-jewish-archives.

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