Archive Struggles With Money, Mission

By Jennifer Siegel

Published January 27, 2006, issue of January 27, 2006.
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Five years after its creation, a consortium intended to be America’s premier Jewish archive is struggling to maintain its footing as some member institutions battle financial difficulties — some of which are seen as partly related to their membership in the consortium.

The consortium, the New York-based Center for Jewish History, unites five historical societies that preserve an array of documents and artifacts. Members include the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, the premier archive of East European Jewry, and the Leo Baeck Institute, which documents German-speaking Jewry.

In recent weeks, one of the largest members, the American Jewish Historical Society, drew ire from scholars and supporters after selling several Colonial-era portraits, worth millions of dollars, to fix a deficit in its operating budget.

Beyond the question of the sale’s propriety, the move brought to light some of the center’s underlying financial issues. Several member groups, which are responsible for their own budgets and fund raising, have faltered in recent years, sparking speculation that one or more may consider moving out. In the meantime, center leaders have met with outside institutions — notably New York University — to explore a possible affiliation.

“Maybe we should consider the whole thing a mistake, and each of the organizations should consider going to a different place outside of New York,” said Jonathan Sarna, a professor of Jewish history at Brandeis University and a member of the academic council of the American Jewish Historical Society. Sarna compared the creation of the Center for Jewish History to the failed merger between America Online and Time Warner in 2000.

At its founding, the goal of the center, as for AOL-Time Warner, was to create what marketing executives call “synergy.” Its five member organizations — YIVO, Leo Baeck Institute, Yeshiva University Museum, the American Sephardi Federation and the Jewish historical society — bring the history and culture of Eastern European, Sephardic, German-speaking, and American Jews under one roof at a prestigious Manhattan address. The groups maintain their own staffs, financial independence and ownership of their archives. The center owns and operates the building and invests in joint projects; all partners collaborate on joint programming and exhibits.

The hoped-for synergy has occurred in several areas, notably in a joint library where visitors and scholars can access multiple collections at once; a recently opened digital laboratory that handles projects for all five member groups; and a joint high-tech media theater. The center staff has won grants that benefit all the groups, such as a $2 million federal grant to digitize the catalogues of each member’s archives. But at other times, coordination has proved difficult, as when the center failed to raise the funding needed to mount a major exhibit, involving all five member groups, in honor of last year’s 350th anniversary of Jewish life in America. The American Jewish Historical Society instead presided over a scaled-down version of the exhibit.

The recent decision of the historical society to sell portraits of the Franks family, a prominent Jewish family in Colonial America — to the owners of Wal-Mart, according to the New York Jewish Week — has underscored the financial vulnerability of several center members.

YIVO is the center’s largest constituent and main architect of the deal that created it, with an endowment over $10 million, some of which was raised from the sale in the late 1990s of the group’s longtime home in a Fifth Avenue mansion.

But other organizations, including the historical society, lack a similar cushion. The Sephardi Federation, the center’s smallest partner, ran a deficit in fiscal year 2004, after several years of robust surpluses. “It’s becoming increasingly difficult to raise money,” the group’s executive director, Esme Emmanuel Berg, said.

The American Jewish Historical Society, founded in 1892, was on shaky financial footing even before moving from its home in Waltham, Mass., to join the center, and like the Sephardi group, it has seen its operating budget rise in its new home. While the total operating budget was about $1 million in fiscal year 1998, it topped $2.8 million in fiscal year 2004.

The Leo Baeck Institute, founded in 1955, has, like YIVO, a multimillion-dollar endowment. But it also maintains a center in Berlin that is supported in part by the German government, and from the beginning, some center insiders have seen it as ambivalent about participating in the center.

The perception by the member groups that they are competing with the center for donor dollars has long created tension, according to Lois Cronholm, the first of four executive directors to serve the center in the past five years.

“Frequently at board meetings there would be a kind of clucking over how much money it was costing to run the center,” Cronholm said. There were “unrealistic assumptions made both about how much it would cost to run the center and how much income could be generated from the center.”

The center’s operating budget grew to $6 million in recent years but has been cut back by $1 million for the current fiscal year, according to the chief financial officer, Ira Berkowitz.

Bruce Slovin, the chairman of the center and of YIVO — as well as acting director of the center since the departure of Executive Director Peter Geffen six months ago — said the center is seeking ways to secure its financial footing. A planned giving campaign was launched in November, and talks have been held with a number of universities in the Northeast, including NYU, about possible partnerships.

Slovin acknowledged that the center has endured its share of “complications” and “hiccups,” but nonetheless characterized it as “thriving.” The individual partners, whatever their challenges, he said, cannot leave the arrangement without great difficulty: By contract, they are obligated to remain at the center. Attempting to leave also would be financially complicated. Originally, the five organizations owned stakes in the center’s facilities in proportion to the investment they made, but these individual ownership rights were ceded to the center. Therefore, a single organization that withdraws might not be able to get its investment back. However, if the center’s board, which includes representatives of all five groups, voted to sell the center, each group would recoup its initial investment, and proceeds would be shared equally, according to Slovin.

In the long term, the biggest issue for the archives may not be where they are located, but whom they claim as supporters. Most major archives — including the American Jewish Archives at the Hebrew Union College campus in Cincinnati — are funded by academic institutions or large endowments. The Center for Jewish History and its constituent groups are competing with a variety of Jewish causes and cultural organizations.

“A lot of people still say, ‘You’ve got the Jewish Museum, you’ve got the Holocaust Museum, so we didn’t need another Jewish organization,’” Cronholm said. “That’s not true, because there is nothing that mimics what the Center for Jewish History does. But I don’t know that that message ever got across as forcefully as it should.”

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