Securing the Future of the Center for Jewish History: Independence Is Invaluable

By Elisheva Carlebach

Published November 28, 2007, issue of November 30, 2007.
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In late September, New York University circulated a confidential proposal to members of the boards of the Center for Jewish History. Euphemistically titled “Securing the Growth of the Center for Jewish History,” the proposal in fact spells out the end of the center as it now exists while securing the growth of NYU.

The Center for Jewish History brings together under one roof several organizations whose holdings include millions of documents, artifacts and books. It is an international magnet for scholars and the first destination for Jews of all ages seeking to know more about their roots.

Young Jews of the future may not remember whether their ancestors came from Luebeck, Lublin or Louisville, but they would know where to go to find out. This unparalleled resource belongs to the Jewish people, to scholars and to the public — and it should not fall into the hands of any private corporation.

This is not to object to NYU per se. No university has provided a more hospitable venue for a thriving department of Jewish studies than NYU.

NYU’s faculty and students certainly deserve a center for advanced study, and the world of Judaic scholarship would be richer for it. However, there is no need for such a think tank to be predicated upon the ownership of an archive that belongs in the public domain.

The Center for Jewish History’s archive serves the entire profession of Jewish studies, as well as a large public of present and future users. No single academic institution can bring the multiplicity of perspectives, or the diversity of geographic, institutional and disciplinary experience, needed to ensure that the historic mission of the center remains uncompromised.

The deal NYU envisions would, in fact, be detrimental to future public and scholarly access. The Center for Jewish History’s home would become the home of NYU’s Jewish studies department. The memorandum from September clarifies the university’s intentions: “If the space…is not suitable [for NYU’s Department]… the partners must adjust their occupancy.”

Funding from New York City, according to the memorandum, will create an “offsite warehouse facility” to house the Center for Jewish History’s archival holdings in order to accommodate NYU faculty, staff, students and guests. After 20 years, the university assumes no obligation to keep the remaining components of the center in the building.

During this temporary interlude the difficulties in raising funds experienced by the center’s partner institutions will intensify greatly. The public perception that the center is safe in the hands of a wealthy university will dry up existing sources of revenue.

Foreseeing this likelihood, NYU has magnanimously agreed to “retain” the collections of partners who can no longer afford to care for them. What would happen to the collections accumulated painstakingly over the last century?

Once NYU owned the material, it would control all access. Any member of the public — journalist, heritage tourist, high school student or advanced scholar — would need to apply to NYU to use its materials. Resources that provided the foundation for thousands of books, films, lectures and classes may well be restricted, accessible only if the head of NYU’s Jewish studies department agrees to the project.

Why, one must ask, is NYU so eager to add the Center of Jewish History to its roster, at a time when other universities are finding archival collections too great a burden to administer?

The center sits on a large site in a most desirable location in the hottest real estate market in the world. Even if NYU were to pay the market rate for the property — and it is far from clear that this is the case — the deal now on the table is akin to a customer paying for a pretty box, with the valuable gems it contains thrown in for nothing.

An archive is like no other library in the world. Every scrap of paper, every letter, every photograph is unique. None others like them exist anywhere.

The Center for Jewish History’s partner institutions have invested time, money and incredible devotion into building up and curating these collections. The holdings represent voices that have been silenced by the brute forces of history or muffled by the passage of time. For these voices to be treated as a give-away to sweeten what is by all appearances a real estate deal is the ultimate indignity.

Now is the time for an open discussion within the Jewish community about the fate of the Center for Jewish History, its partner institutions and its collections. It is critical that the core mission of the founders and donors over the years be protected to the fullest possible extent.

If these shards of our past disappear into private hands, our children may never forgive us for ceding their patrimony. Attention must be paid, or priceless pieces of our history may be lost to us.

Elisheva Carlebach, chair of the Center for Jewish History’s Academic Advisory Council, is a professor of history at Queens College and the Graduate Center, CUNY.

In 2000, five Jewish historical institutions — the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, Leo Baeck Institute, Yeshiva University Museum, American Sephardi Federation and American Jewish Historical Society — partnered to form the Center for Jewish History. Faced with financial difficulties almost since its inception, the consortium was approached this past September by New York University with an offer to merge the center and NYU’s Skirball Department of Hebrew and Judaic Studies into what would be the largest institution for Judaic research outside of Israel. The proposal has sparked a robust debate on the future of the center and its invaluable archives; featured here are the views of two leading actors in the drama unfolding on 16th Street in Manhattan.

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