Preserving Community History — It’s Distinctly a Mitzvah!


Mary Weltman, who lives in Federation Housing Inc.'s Shalom House in Northeast Philadelphia, felt flattered to be included in an oral-history project co-sponsored by the National Museum of American Jewish History and the Philadelphia Jewish Archives Center.

The 85-year-old Sephardic Jew wanted to share her life story, and preserve memories of her Turkish-born parents for her children and grandchildren.

Weltman, who recorded her memories at the museum during the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia's Oct. 21 Mitzvah Mania day of community service, related her experiences of growing up in a family that prepared meat pies with matzah crust for Passover.

"The pies were filled with rice — a Sephardic specialty," she recalled, adding, "I never tasted gefilte fish until I married my late husband, Seymour, who was an Ashkenazi Jew."

Weltman proudly conveyed her experiences as an assistant inspector of a manufacturing plant during World War II. "I supervised the production of hydraulic pumps that opened the Bombay doors of P47 Thunderbolt planes," she said. "I learned how to read blueprints and use very specialized equipment, and I was very proud to contribute to the success of our war effort."

Susan Itkis, director of social services at Federation Housing, helped to select 12 residents and transport them by agency van to the museum. Agency representatives noted that they were excited to participate in this project, which also included residents of Martin's Run Senior Residential Community in Media.

Josh Perelman, the museum's historian and deputy director of programming, was delighted to "give voice" to the stories of Weltman, as well as 22 other men and women over the age of 70 who participated in the project.

"Through the lived experiences of ordinary folk, we gain an appreciation of what it was like to live at this time … what economic, religious or cultural and psychological factors led people to make the choices they made in their lives," said Perelman, who felt that the project was a success on many levels.

"It offered participants historical longevity, helped to preserve the history of Philadelphia and afforded access to neighborhood stories that make up the fabric of human life," he said.

Each participant will receive a CD containing his or her story, in addition to a personal photo. Copies of oral histories will become part of the center and museum repositories.

'A Better Society'
Julie Levitt, Ph.D., vice president and chair of the education committee for the Philadelphia Jewish Archives Center, felt privileged to work with the museum to fulfill an important mitzvah — building the infrastructure of the community."

She explained that "these people have contributed greatly to the growth of the Jewish and general communities throughout the Mid-Atlantic region by raising children, owning a business, voting and becoming a member of a congregation. Through these actions, they have helped to create a better society."

Levitt, a psychologist, is impressed by the obstacles these men and women overcame to become success stories.

"They dealt with language and cultural barriers, anti-Semitism, the Great Depression and other adversities, yet managed to move forward," she said, adding that "understanding this process will be extremely valuable to today's émigrés."

"You don't have to be famous to have an impact on future generations," she commented, emphasizing that "our children and grandchildren who hear these stories can learn valuable lessons about how to successfully assimilate and participate in the American process while transmitting important Jewish values."



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