Rarely do you meet one who pursues their work so persistently, so passionately, yet so tenderly. With loving care, Sharon Alterman has championed the collection, organization and preservation of the Leonard N. Simons Jewish Community Archives since its founding in 1991.
Aside from a modest collection of papers housed in the Historical Burton Collection at the Detroit Public Library before Sharon’s tenure, the “archives” of Jewish Detroit was little more than boxes upon dusty boxes – countless documents and a jumble of historic records – stored in the basements of the community’s service agencies, including Federation’s Butzel Building downtown. It was Sharon’s curiosity that spurred her on to the Walter P. Reuther Library at Wayne State University where she earned her credentials in archival administration. And it was Sharon, again, who convinced the Federation to hire her in 1998 as the community’s first archivist and the founding director of what would be a painstaking and massive undertaking . . . to bring to life the rich history of our community for generations to come.
Through Sharon’s quiet diligence and guidance over the years, the Archives has grown into a community treasure, an unparalleled resource with more than two million documents in over 50 collections, including manuscripts, photographs, oral histories videos and artifacts. With her keen eye for detail, her love of history and an encyclopedic knowledge of the people and places of Jewish Detroit, it would seem that Sharon has a story, a recollection or a point of interest for almost every item.
Gifts from the past
Describing a favorite item amidst the vast collection that occupies nearly 3,000 linear feet in the Max M. Fisher Federation Building and Reuther Library, Sharon reaches for a grey box on the shelf, lifts the lid and carefully opens the fragile pages of a hand-bound book. “This is a rare gift from the past,” she explains, “It’s a pattern book from 1901, owned by Hattie Franklin, the wife of Rabbi Leo Franklin. The book contains stitchery samples, and an instructional manual given to ladies of the Beth El Relief Society, so that they could teach new Americans to sew and find employment.”
“There is still much to be said about the immediacy and impact of picking up a photograph or a handwritten document and touching our history,” says Sharon, “I can’t help but wonder what’s going to happen to our collective memory as it moves through the digital age into storage in ‘the cloud.’”
A gentle soul with a megawatt smile – a mentor and a leader, even upon her retirement from the role of community archivist, Sharon has embraced the past with her eye on the future. In December, she turned over the reins of the Archives to its new Director, Robbie Terman, who will focus much of her attention on creating access to the Archives through digital technology. “I look to Sharon as an example of what passion, determination, and perseverance can accomplish,” says Robbie. “It is because of her vision and hard work that the Archives not only exists, but is thriving.”
“In my work, I have had a front row seat watching our history in the making and I have made great friends along the way,” Sharon tells us. “Remember: the achievements of our great Jewish community are recorded for posterity in those grey boxes found in the Archives. Keep up the magnificent work!”
Notes of appreciation:
From Howard Neistein, Chief Administrative Officer, Federation
“We have a collective mission of organizing, mobilizing and securing the Jewish community for the next generation, with each of us to our own unique task. No one is more deeply committed to this mission, on an everyday basis, than Sharon. Sharon’s role has been helping to preserve the Detroit Jewish community’s history as a legacy and a beacon of pride to guide future leaders.”
From Andrew Echt, Chief Financial Resource Development Officer, Federation
“To know who we are and where we need to go, we must understand the great and rich Jewish history of this community. That story has been preserved and enriched and ennobled by Sharon Alterman’s deep care. The voices, the aspirations and the challenges of what came before us are our guide for future vision—Sharon has been the eyes and ears for all of us and the community is all the more wise because of her.”
From Kari Alterman, Regional Direct0r, American Jewish Committee-Detroit
“How fortunate I’ve been! To have spent years working down the hall from my mother-in-law, Sharon. She was always my sounding board, a trusted voice, a role model: someone whose passion for the Jewish community is unparalleled.”