BOSTON — The vibrant and influential history of New England’s Jewish population chronicled in a vast repository of documents stored at the New England Historic Genealogical Society is being celebrated Wednesday.
The Jewish Heritage Center at the Boston-based genealogical society is not just a resource for people tracing family roots, but a trove of information for scholars researching the Jewish influence on New England’s economy and the history of anti-Semitism. It also preserves the records of Jewish philanthropies and synagogues.
“The information archived here provides some context and shows what part Jewish immigrants played in growing the community,” said Stephanie Call, the centre’s manager.
The Jewish Heritage Center oversees the archives of the American Jewish Historical Society-New England, which has collaborated with the New England Historic Genealogical Society for several years. Wednesday’s reception is the formal celebration of the partnership.
The archives have had several homes in the Boston area over the years, but moving them to the genealogical society permanently was a natural fit, because it is already considered the premier national resource for genealogists and family historians.
About 1.2 million documents have been digitized as part of an ongoing project to get the records online and available to the public, said Ryan Woods, the genealogical society’s senior vice-president.
The archives play a critical role in preserving the unique history of Jews in New England, said Jonathan Sarna, a professor of Jewish history at Brandeis University and a member of the Jewish Heritage Center’s advisory council.
Boston was actually behind many other cities when it came to Jewish immigration, and the first synagogue in the area wasn’t founded until the 1840s. But the region’s Jewish population had increased to about 100,000 by about 1900, Sarna said.
The documents provide a better understanding of how Jewish immigrants fit into the history of the region as a whole, Sarna said.
“Telling the history of Jews in Boston is telling the story of the shoe trade, the garment trade, banking and was very important to the development of the U.S. generally,” he said.
The archive is home to copies of the Boston Jewish Times newspaper, the records of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society and Combined Jewish Philanthropies, as well as the personal papers of some of the region’s most prominent Jewish citizens including Abraham Ratshesky and the Rabb family.
The Rabbs founded the Stop & Shop supermarket chain and were also philanthropists who have buildings named in their honour at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and Brandeis.
Ratshesky was a state senator and banker who led Massachusetts’ relief effort to Halifax, Nova Scotia, in 1917 after a munitions ship exploded in the harbour, destroying a huge portion of the city and killing an estimated 2,000 people. Ratshesky’s legacy lives to this day in Nova Scotia’s annual gift of a Christmas tree to Boston.