An Interview with the Director of AJHS New England Archives
Judith A. Garner is the current Director and Managing Archivist at the American Jewish Historical Society New England Archives at the New England Historic Genealogical Society. Judi has worked for AJHS-NEA for over thirteen years and has seen the Society through several transitions. She started as an archival intern while still in graduate school, where she was working toward a Master’s Degree in Library and Information Science with a concentration in Archival Management. After graduation, Judi was offered the position of Archives Assistant, and was later promoted to Project Archivist and then Managing Archivist. Since the recent move and strategic partnership with the New England Historic Genealogical Society, Judi now holds the position of Director and Managing Archivist at the Society.
The following is a recent interview with Judi conducted by Johnna Kaplan, editor of the AJHS-NEA e-newsletter.
How did you become interested in archives? Was Jewish history a particular interest of yours before working at AJHS?
Well, I always had an interest in American history, even in elementary school it was my favorite subject. Growing up I had Jewish friends but I think a pivotal experience for me was when I was 12 years old and read The Diary of Anne Frank; that made a lasting impression on me. I was determined to try and understand how something like the Holocaust could have happened. I can’t say today that I am any closer to that understanding other than knowing it is not really understandable, but I have learned how important it is to preserve history so that we can learn from the past.
Eventually I went on to study at Wellesley College where I earned a Bachelor’s degree in History with a concentration in American Jewish History. While at Wellesley, I worked for the Jewish Studies department and did an undergraduate thesis on Jewish women homesteaders of the Upper Midwest. I knew I wanted a profession that would combine my love of history with the importance I felt of preserving history and my affinity for the ethno-religious Jewish culture. When one of my sisters suggested I check out the graduate degree program at Simmons College where I could earn a Master’s Degree in Library Science with a specialty in Archival Management I thought, I love books, I love history so this is a perfect fit! Shortly after starting my studies at Simmons one of my professors told the class of an internship at the American Jewish Historical Society in Waltham, I knew I had to get that internship and that working for AJHS would be my dream job! I did get that internship and the rest, as they say, is history!
As Director of AJHS New England Archives, what do you do in a typical day?
There is really no typical day; my work day is quite varied. As an administrator, along with our Board, I am in charge of overseeing the future direction of AJHS-NEA and of finding ways to sustain the Society and its important collections going forward.
Along with overseeing daily operations, supervising staff, planning and coordinating outreach in the community, which includes programing as well as accessioning of records, I am the liaison between AJHS-NEA and the New England Historic Genealogical Society, AJHS New York (our national organization), our Boston Board of Overseers and the Boston Jewish community. I still address most of the reference requests; we get on average about 30 or 40 requests per month. This involves working with researchers, both academic and commercial, and inquiries from the general public.
What, if anything, has surprised you during your time at AJHS-NEA, and what do you think would surprise the public?
Although I have a background in American Jewish history, I have been very surprised by the contributions that the Greater Boston and New England Jewish communities have made not only to Greater Boston and New England but to national and international communities as well. I think many local Jews have no idea of the rich history of their community, for example, many people know that Boston receives a Christmas tree from Halifax, Nova Scotia every year in recognition of the Boston community’s help during their 1917 disaster, but not many people know that Abraham Ratshesky, a Boston Jewish banker, Massachusetts State Senator and philanthropist, was a leader in the aid and recovery efforts. A local Jewish businessman from Brockton by the name of Dewey Stone helped to fund the ship, Exodus, and provided other important aid to Israel in her struggling first years as a nation. Or how many know the story of a young immigrant Jewish boy, Adolphus Strassman (Rich), a 13 year old from Fall River who lied about his age and went off to fight in the American Civil War – we have his diary, discharge papers and photographs. These are just a very few of the many personal stories that can be found in our collections.
In addition to these very personal stories we also have organizational collections that document the history of the local Jewish community from the mid-1800s, throughout the 20th Century and now into the 21st Century. Collections like those of the Combined Jewish Philanthropies, the Jewish Community Relations Council, the Synagogue Council of Massachusetts, the Bureau of Jewish Education and the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society. These collections are a treasure trove of information concerning Jewish immigration and settlement in New England, Jewish involvement in the Civil Rights and Soviet Jewry movements, aid to Israel and the community’s fight against anti-Semitism and their fostering of a better understanding and acceptance between different ethnic and religious groups. I am constantly finding more stories like these that reside in our collections – there is always something new to discover!
Is there anything else you would like to add?
Yes, I would like to add that I hope going forward we can inspire more of the community to investigate and become knowledgeable of the rich and varied history that is a significant part of their Greater Boston and New England Jewish heritage. We are currently in the process of digitizing all of our collections in an effort to make that history more accessible to everyone; however, we cannot do it alone. We are solely funded by contributions and membership and we do have a volunteer program as well. I encourage everyone to get involved, become a member and/or help by volunteering. It’s your history and your community, so help us preserve the future of the Greater Boston and New England Jewish past; future generations will be glad you did!