Mixed marriage makes history
Societies share home, resources
By Leah Burrows, Advocate Staff
Jews and blue-blooded New Englanders are learning they have more in common than just John Kerry. The New England branch of the American Jewish Historical Society has joined forces with the New England Historic Genealogical Society, not only moving into its building on Newbury Street but also sharing resources and archives. The pact between the two organizations, both the oldest of their kind, represents an intermarriage of sorts between two groups that have more shared history than people may think.
“We have become such a blended and pluralist society that neither one of us can search our ancestors without searching on a broad base,” said Justin Wyner, past president and current chair of the Boston Board of Overseers of the American Jewish Historical Society.
While each organization will retain its independence, the collaboration is symbiotic, explained Wyner. The historical society has access to the genealogical society’s scanning and archival technologies – a much needed resource – and the genealogical society can send patrons tracing their roots to the Jewish archives. “Everyone has a Jewish family member these days,” Wyner said.
Only seven years ago, for example, Senator John Kerry –whose mother was from Boston’s well-heeled Forbes clan – learned that his paternal grandfather, Fritz Kohn, was a Jew.
The collaboration between the two societies happened almost by chance. Founded in New York City in 1892, the American Jewish Historical Society is the oldest ethnic historical society in the country. Its first office in New England was on the Brandies University campus before moving to Hebrew College in Newton.
Last year, with Hebrew College facing uncertainties, Wyner began looking for a new home for the New England branch. He explored universities, colleges and libraries all over the
region, but couldn’t find a good fit. Then, by chance, Wyner stumbled upon the genealogical
Founded in 1845, it is the oldest genealogical society in the country and serves as the unofficial genealogist for American presidents. It has more than 26,000 members. “We complement each other in so many ways,” Wyner said. “The history and contributions made by the English settlers to the formation of America and their counterparts the European Jews have become so intertwined.”
Take for example, Hannah Adams, who in 1812 wrote the first history of Jews in America.
She was a New Englander, a non-Jew and a cousin of the famous Boston-area Adamses. Her personal correspondences with leading 19th-century American Jews are part of the genealogical society’s collection. Or take the archives ofBoston’s Louisa May Alcott Club. Named after the (non-Jewish) author of “Little Women,” it was founded in 1894 by young Jewish girls and women to learn domestic skills, good hygiene and English. In the Jewish historical society archives are descriptions of the club that not only depict the living conditions of Jewish immigrants, but also paint a picture of everyday life in Boston at the turn of the 20th century.
“The goal of the societies is to place ancestry in context, so it’s not just names and dates but how people lived,” said D. Brenton Simons, president and CEO of the genealogical society. “These are all powerful family stories, and even if they’re not our ancestors, we can all relate to them.”
Judi Garner, head archivist for the Jewish historical society, said that both organizations view their missions as telling the stories that history books often overlook. “History is not about the upper echelon,” Garner said. “It’s about the people who make up the community.”
One of those unsung people in the Jewish community was Bernard Gorfinkle. Born in Boston in 1889, Gorfinkle fought in World War I and served as a military aide to Woodrow Wilson. He was present at the signing of the Treaty of Versailles in 1919 and brought home an annotated copy of the document.
Gorfinkle eventually rose to the rank of brigadier general. He served as a director for the Hebrew Rehabilitation Center for the Aged and the Boston Brandeis Club and as a trustee for the then-Beth Israel Hospital. You can find his annotated treaty and letters he wrote from the trenches of World War I in the Jewish historical society archives.
The archivists don’t just look to the distant past for documents. They also collect recent
documents, recognizing their potential value to later generations. Among them are records
from synagogues and organizations like the Combined Jewish Philanthropies and the Jewish Community Relations Council. “Archivists think 5,000 years in the future,” said Garner.
The Jewish historical society is currently digitizing all of its archives and compiling the
largest record of Jewish burials in the country – more than 170,000 records from New England. Wyner sees the collaboration with the genealogical society as making it easier to trace the role of Jews in the nation’s history.
“We can really take pride in our contribution to this community and America as a whole,” he said.
About the photograph: Col. Bernard L. Gorfinkle, Commander of Newton Post 211 Jewish War Veterans, undated. From the Papers of Col. Bernard L. Gorfinkle, P-664.