It started in a dark, dusty basement. Thousands of documents and photographs that told the story of Detroit’s Jewish community cluttered the lowest level of 163 Madison Avenue, then home to the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit. The Federation was preparing to move to their new headquarters in Bloomfield Hills and there were two choices: dispose of hundreds of boxes or move them to the new building.
Important historical records are often lost during moves; it is easier to throw boxes in a dumpster rather than a moving truck. But this time a trained archivist, who knew the value of the collection, was on staff at Federation. And, thus, was the beginning of the Leonard N. Simons Jewish Community Archives.
The year was 1991 . . .
And the archivist was Sharon Alterman. Under her leadership, the collection grew to include records of Federation’s member agencies, Jewish communal organizations and the papers of Detroit’s Jewry. “The Jewish Federation was in the forefront when it established a Jewish Community Archives,” says Alterman. “Few other cities in the nation had done so.” She adds that “visionary leaders, such as Avern Cohn, Judy Cantor, Leonard Simons, Irwin Shaw, Phil Slomovitz and Bob Aronson, understood the importance of safeguarding the remarkable history of our dynamic community.”
2016 marks the 25th anniversary of the Archives, whose holdings now surpass two million documents, 25,000 photographs and 100 oral history interviews. “It’s a momentous milestone,” says Michael Berke, chair of the Archives Committee. “One we want to celebrate with the community.”
That celebration includes a “pop-up” exhibit, called Creating a Jewish Community, which kicks off in January and runs throughout 2016, hitting more than thirty locations around Metro Detroit.“We want to reach people where they go to school, worship, work and play,” says Berke.
Telling our story from urban shtetl to suburban neighborhoods
In four double-sided panels, the pop-up exhibit covers more than a century of history
Shtetl in the City spotlights the large influx of Jewish immigrants to Detroit during the Great Migration of 1880-1920. Neighborhoods pays tribute to the areas where Jews resided from Hastings Street through suburban migration. Lending a Hand is a homage to Jewish service organizations. And Connecting with Israel shares the strong bond between Detroit and Israel, dating back to pre-1948.
A fifth panel, on the history of Federation, also will be exhibited at select locations.
Each panel will move to a new location on a monthly basis. Hosts comprise of museums, synagogues, libraries, Jewish organizations and local businesses. Several locations, including the Detroit Public Library, Wayne State University’s Undergraduate Library and the Jewish Community Center, will host the exhibit in its entirety.
And, while each panel stands alone, together they provide an insight into what makes Detroit’s Jewish community so extraordinary. All while showcasing the Archives vast and varied collection. Every item in the exhibit comes from its holdings.
In January, the exhibit will launch in-part at the Southfield Public Library, which will host the Neighborhoods panel, and at the Holocaust Memorial Center.
“I think it entirely appropriate for the Holocaust Memorial Center Zekelman Family Campus (HMC) to be one of the inaugural locations for the traveling exhibit Shtetl in the City, the story of Jewish immigration to Detroit,” says Executive Director Stephen Goldman.“The HMC is the home of the Jewish Genealogical Society and, naturally, the archives of Holocaust survivors in our area. We are honored to host this section of the exhibit and hope to see all our friends at the HMC.”
The full series of panels will be revealed in March.
While the prime objective of the exhibit is to celebrate a significant anniversary, it is also to bring awareness to the Archives. There are still many people in the community who don’t know such a resource exists. “After a year of traveling around Metro Detroit, we hope to be seen not as a ‘hidden’ gem, but simply a gem,” adds Berke.
With over 100 years of history in the Archives collection, it would be impossible to convey the complete story of this community in a few panels. So, the story will continue with a special display this summer at the Walter P. Reuther Library on Wayne State University’s campus. 25 Years, 25 Treasures will highlight 25 of the noteworthy objects, documents and photographs from the collection.