Looking Back on The Penny Rubinoff Fellowship

By Renée Saucier

I was initially attracted to the Penny Rubinoff Fellowship because of the opportunity to engage in all aspects of the archival field in a community archives setting (see my previous post), and I am pleased to report that that is exactly what I’ve been doing. I’ve been working in several areas and on several projects, all with the shared aim of providing access to documentation of the Jewish experience in Ontario.

In addition to developing my skills as an archivist, I’ve been gaining a deeper understanding of the matrices of relationships underpinning this particular community archives. Community archivists work with records, but the core of their work consists of building and maintaining relationships with records donors (and their families), educators, partner organizations, researchers/users, volunteers, board members, financial supporters, and other community members. ‘Community’ itself is a messy/complex term, for any given community has contested boundaries and is in fact composed of multiple overlapping communities—in the OJA’s case, communities that are spread throughout and across the province. Each day, I learn more about the religious, ethnic, racial, political and linguistic diversity of Ontario’s Jewish communities, and my time here has been an opportunity to learn how the OJA’s dedicated staff approach their work and undertake to preserve and share back documentation of the diverse range of experiences of Ontario’s Jewish communities.

Collections Development & Donors

I have had the opportunity to work one-on-one with donors to advise on and coordinate the donation of records to the Ontario Jewish Archives. As well, I have been working to help build the OJA’s collections through the Bathurst Manor Project, the OJA’s major collections development initiative for 2020. (You’ll hear more on that in the coming months!) I have surveyed our current holdings, identified and consulted relevant holdings elsewhere, and helped to plan focus group meetings to determine our collecting priorities.

Ontario Jewish Archives, Blankenstein Family Heritage Centre, accession 2018-7-4, image 24.

Exterior of St Mary’s Gk. Church, 257 Shaw Street, Formerly the B’nai Israel Synagogue.

Ontario Jewish Archives, Blankenstein Family Heritage Centre, accession 2018-7-4, image 24.

Welcoming New Materials into the Archives

I spent my first few weeks accessioning new collections. This was a means for me to familiarize myself with the OJA’s holdings and procedures, as well as a way to help reduce the current backlog (…every archive has one!) I’ve accessioned a variety of media including textual records, photographs, slides, and film. Along the way I’ve learned about the OJA’s procedures for rehousing different media and have also had the opportunity to develop appraisal criteria. One highlight was an accession of photographs and slides created by Stephen Speisman and donated by Bill Gladstone; these images capture downtown Toronto synagogues in the 1960s-70s, documenting the changing use of the buildings as congregations merged and/or moved northward.

Making Records Accessible

One of my main projects has been processing records created and accumulated by the Executive Director/CEO of the UJA Federation of Greater Toronto. These records occupy a dozen banker’s boxes and span the late 1970s through the 2000s. Given the high-level nature of the work done by this office, the records pertain to a variety of activities involving an array of partners and groups, documenting initiatives ranging from integration services for Soviet Jewish immigrants in the 1980s to the formation of an AIDS Task Force and Policy in the early 1990s.

Ontario Jewish Archives, Blankenstein Family Heritage Centre, fonds 67, series 5-5.

Allan Reitzes, Executive Director of the UJA Federation of Greater Toronto, in his office in 1998.

Ontario Jewish Archives, Blankenstein Family Heritage Centre, fonds 67, series 5-5.

I have a personal interest in the history of information and communication technologies, and these records offer portals into the materiality of that history. For example, there is an observable shift in the medium of correspondence from typewritten documents and signed letters to faxes and then printed-off emails. Meeting minutes and budget proposals document the adoption of new technologies, including the establishment of an “online Internet presence” and a “Jewish Information Highway”. On a related note, I am excited to be on board to observe and learn about the OJA’s process in selecting and introducing a digital preservation program to preserve born-digital materials documenting Ontario’s Jewish communities.

Access: Behind the Scenes, Behind the Screens

I have also been supporting my colleague Faye with the OJA’s social media outreach, brainstorming, researching and designing posts for Facebook and Instagram. One focus here has been to feature ‘behind the scenes’ posts every week to enhance our audience’s understanding of archives and the work that takes place in them. We’re going to be featuring highlights from the Koffler family fonds, sharing both the materials and also the processes by which they are cared for and made accessible. One of the goals of our social media strategy is to convey the historical significance and importance of family and individual records and to encourage others to donate their materials to the archives.

One of my most enjoyable responsibilities has been providing reference services to researchers over email and in person on topics ranging from war criminals to revolutionary youth to family-run businesses in Kensington Market. Some researchers come to the OJA in order to recover details of stories that they were never fully told, such as a parent or grandparent’s immigration to Canada. Their experiences here demonstrate how community archives can support an individual in attaining a deeper understanding of themselves, their family’s history, and their relationship to larger historical events. Other times, researchers who aren’t expressly researching Jewish history in Ontario contact the archives because their topics (such as radical leftist organizing) have an historic association with segments of the Jewish community and are therefore richly documented in our holdings. These cases demonstrate the important role of community archives in supporting collective memory not only for their direct community, but for all of society.

Reflections on Volunteering at the OJA

By Bronwyn Cragg

Entering my final year as an undergraduate, I have hit the inevitable crossroads: what should I be doing with the rest of my life? For the past four years, I have been studying at the University of Toronto. I had originally majored in history–I had a dream in high school of becoming a Holocaust researcher–but over time my interests expanded, and I found myself switching to Jewish studies. Minoring in art history and German studies, my skillset and interests have drawn me to two options: continuing in academia or becoming an archivist. Thus, the OJA felt like a natural choice: here I could get a feel for the field while still engaged in subjects that I’m interested in.

I had initially sent in a request to volunteer sometime in 2018 but was encouraged to email back the following summer. Still excited about the idea of volunteering, I emailed back the following year and was asked to come in around August to get a feel for what I would be working on. For the past month, I have been getting a taste of a whole slew of archival work: At first, I was tasked with creating posts for the OJA’s social media accounts, and for the first two weeks I worked on sorting through and scanning items relating to Camp Yungvelt, a Yiddish summer camp established in 1925 that was once nestled in the woodland of Pickering.

Photograph of J.B. Salsberg participating in a presentation for young adults in 1938, with Soviet-style imagery of factories, workers, and Stalin in the background. Ontario Jewish Archives, fonds 92, series 4, file 23.By the next day I had moved onto the J. B. Salsberg fonds, which provided both a fascinating and intimate look at the history of Communist politics in Toronto, alongside a healthy amount of mid-century graphics. On my supervisor Faye’s suggestion, I even completed a weeks’ worth of posts about the history of Jewish cinema in Ontario, the archives hosting a decent collection of photographs of the glitzy art deco architecture of twentieth-century theatres.

With newly-acquired experience in scanning and filing items, I then began to process accessions. Though perhaps one of the more tedious parts of working at the OJA, I had fun sorting through boxes, figuring out how to best organize items, and finding a way to enter details in the system that would make the files easily accessible to researchers. Our acquisitions from Canadian Young Judaea provided a glimpse into the history of Zionist movements in Canada and even youth aliyah, and my interest in the Yiddish language led me to a number of related boxes, including the archives of the Toronto-based Friends of Yiddish, for which I organized photographs, flyers, and administrative records. I was also able to work on several family archives and was even able to flex my language skills by translating letters, documents, and photograph captions from Yiddish, German, and Polish. (I thought Yiddish handwriting could be a stress to decipher, but 1920s Polish handwriting was something else!)

Bronwyn Cragg,
A series of photographs that particularly stuck with me: Photobooth pictures of Jerry Glass, age 5, in 1943. - Bronwyn Cragg

One of the more personally-rewarding aspects of working at the Ontario Jewish Archives has been sifting through family photo albums. Quaint, tender, and at times heart-bursting, piecing together family stories through photographs and scraps was, to me, one of the most compelling parts of the job. I have experienced my fair share of listening to others’ family stories and poking around photographs and files. But as a student whose focus has been Holocaust studies, I’ve barely had the chance to consume average, candid, slice-of-life narratives. To discover individual histories of immigration, failures and successes, family growth, and Jewish contributions to Ontario culture was immensely satisfying, even if it did mean that I had to sort past the occasional illegible postcard or utilities bill.

Though I feel like my time at the Ontario Jewish Archives was much too short, it has certainly cemented my desire to go into archival- or research-based work. This August I was able to use a whole host of my skills–from languages to administrative skills, to knowledge of Jewish history and making use of my art history-trained eyes–but there was never any point where I felt tapped out or bored. My time at the OJA has helped me to expand my interests to (perhaps ironically) a local scale. And though I still feel the panic of having eight months to figure out the rest of my life and career, I now know that I can make an informed decision and that archival work is a fulfilling and exciting choice. I look forward to potential future involvement with the archives, whether that be continuing my volunteer work or using it as the vast and rich research resource that it is.

Bronwyn Cragg, 2019. Courtesy of Brownyn Cragg.Bronwyn Cragg is a fourth year undergraduate student of Jewish studies, German, and art history at the University of Toronto. His present research interests include fascism and the Holocaust in WWII Romania, and he has recently written works on art, aesthetics, and nation building in Mandatory Palestine. Bronwyn is currently studying Yiddish and seeks to continue his studies through translation, original research, and archival work.