Austin Jewish Community Archive: New Initiative of Austin History Center

Austin Jewish Community Archive: New Initiative of Austin History Center

Jim Novy and President Lyndon Baines Johnson. Credit: Congregation Agudas Achim

By Robert Cullick

The history of Jews in Austin resides in many places, but in no central location.

Some of that history abides in the files, shelves, boxes and administrative cabinets of synagogues, university centers and Jewish service organizations throughout the city. Other tidbits are embedded in the tattered scrapbooks, diaries, newspaper clippings and photo albums sequestered in attics, basements, living room credenzas and garage shelves of individuals’ homes and places of business. Still other stories are just waiting to be recorded from those who were part of that history, and live today to tell the tales.

Is it a good idea to pull all of this information together under the stewardship of the city of Austin? Could access, organization and protection help to preserve this history for future generations? What would it mean for individual pieces of history to be gathered under one roof to more easily contribute to a comprehensive story about the Jews who have helped shape the 11th largest city in the United States?

A group of dedicated Austin Jewish community members has been exploring these possibilities with the Austin History Center and invites public input at a community-wide forum on Nov. 6 at 7:30 p.m., at Shalom Austin.

“We’re at a point of transformation from the talking stage of an idea to the development stage within the Austin Jewish community,” said Paul Keeper, one of the organizers of the effort. “We want to put a proposal in front of the community-wide meeting to explain what we hope to do and enlist additional folks to volunteer to get the job done.”

The idea surfaced when Keeper inherited the job of dealing with personal information maintained by his grandmother, Rose Keeper of Houston, of blessed memory. After the silver, furniture and personal mementos were distributed, boxes of paper materials were left.

“It was a wonderful trove. She had diaries and date books going back 40 or 50 years. She had her father’s steamship ticket, the invitation to her wedding and notes of meetings with other members of the Jewish community,” Keeper said.

In searching for a home for his grandmother’s ephemera, he discovered that his hometown of Houston had recently inaugurated a pubic archive for just such treasures. Following the devastation of Hurricane Harvey in 2017, which severely affected the southwest Houston Jewish community, Rice University created the Houston Jewish History Archive under the directorship of Joshua Furman. In just two years, the archive has amassed thousands of family, synagogue and institutional files which are now catalogued online and available for public research. The mission is the study and preservation of Jewish life in South Texas through collecting artifacts from all facets of Jewish life.

So, Keeper, a mediator and retired administrative law judge, began to test the waters in Austin. He found eager partners with Dr. Suzanne Seriff at The Schusterman Center for Jewish Studies at the University of Texas at Austin; Mike Miller, managing archivist with the Austin History Center, the local history collection of the Austin Public Library and the city's historical archive; and Jeff Cohen, executive director of the Austin History Center Association, a non-profit group that supports the Austin History Center.

“I see this as part of the History Center’s mission to tell the story of all of Austin,” said Miller. “The Center is committed to gathering, indexing and creating access to materials that tell the story of African-Americans, Asians, Latinx and other groups. Austin Jews are an important group in the history of the city and we have not developed the materials that capture their impact.“

For Seriff, the desire to create a central archive for Austin’s Jewish community is both professional and personal. As a folklorist and faculty member of UT’s Schusterman Center for Jewish Studies, Seriff is committed to developing courses, symposia, exhibits and public programs that feature the unique stories of Austin’s—and Texas’—Jewish community—including their seminal role as merchants, politicians, industry leaders, artists and philanthropists throughout Austin’s history. As a third generation Jewish Texan, Seriff grew up listening to the stories of her Austin relatives, and ended up building her home, family, and career around the Jewish community in Austin almost half a century ago.

“This is my home, and I love the idea of having one central location where I and my family can go to learn about the history of Jews in Austin for generations to come,” she said.

With a central collection strategy, the materials that are currently distributed among institutions and families could be collected, catalogued and conserved consistently. With the creation of a Web-enabled library guide, scholars and researchers anywhere in the world could know exactly what materials are available in the collection. Materials would be archived safely for preservation, and easily accessible for research, programs and family geneology studies at all times.

Cohen is passionate about the importance of such an archive at a time when there is rapid structural change in the Jewish and general society that generationally pulls the community farther apart.

“It’s vitally important for the middle-aged and older generations to preserve the analog history in the emergent digital age. It’s important in a more transient society to preserve community history. Our community’s shared history should be a unifying tool in a time when differences in political leanings polarize us. What we want to have is the precious opportunity and responsibility to make sure the Jewish story is included in the larger story of the history of Austin,” he said.

Mike Miller emphasized that the Austin History Center is not starting from an empty slate. The Center already has a small record of Austin’s earliest Jewish community activities, including the family papers of Henry Hirschfeld, the first president of Congregation Beth Israel, and some isolated documents from Austin’s Jewish merchant community and those involved in the Civil Rights movement in Austin. Over the past several months, the Center has begun to go through all its existing collections to create a “Jewish American Resource Guide” as a first step to identifying strengths and weaknesses in the existing historical record. The next step is to solicit holdings from Austin’s Jewish institutions and individual families. Examples might include autobiographical materials about immigration to America, photographs of the commercial enterprises that were part of Austin’s Jewish experience, and audio- or video-recorded interviews with Austin residents about their memories of the city and the experience of being Jewish in central Texas.

Miller is also quick to acknowledge that the development of such an archive is always a two way street between the Austin History Center and the community donors. Those who choose to donate materials to the archive have a multitude of options about how, when and under what terms to do so. Individuals or institutions might choose to hold on to some or all of their original documents and provide copies for the archive; on the other hand, they may prefer to safeguard the valuable originals for posterity in the archive, while they hold on to copies for their own personal or institutional use. In either case, donors have many options to decide how and when their materials might be used and made available to the general public.

In addition to papers, books, photographs, sound recordings, films, and other related material, the Austin Jewish Community Archive also hopes to work with volunteers to create oral histories of prominent members of our community who have stories to tell of their role in key moments in Austin’s history.

“I know that, like me, there are a lot of people out there who have or will have precious materials from their bubbe or zayde. Having a place to archive and preserve these materials, while creating a mosaic of Jewish life in Austin, would be a great thing,” Keeper said. ■

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