$12M Gift Transforms Penn Libraries’ Judaica Holdings

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The University of Pennsylvania recently announced that its libraries received $12 million in gifts from Arnold and Deanne Kaplan, including the world’s first endowed position in Judaica digital humanities. The Kaplans’ contributions comprise historical artifacts and funding for future acquisitions, digitization and research fellowships.

To coincide with the announcement, Penn launched a new website that offers free digital access to nearly 7,000 items from The Arnold and Deanne Kaplan Collection of Early American Judaica.

The Kaplans began donating pieces from their collection to Penn’s libraries more than a decade ago after striking up a relationship with Arthur Kiron, the curator of Penn’s Judaica collections. The collections are housed partly on campus at Van Pelt Library and partly in the Herbert D. Katz Center for Advanced Judaic Studies at 420 Walnut St.


Arnold Kaplan, formerly chief financial officer of United Healthcare, recalled that he and Kiron were aligned in their vision for the collection and how it might be used to maximally affect scholarship in oft-overlooked areas of American Jewish history, namely the significant Jewish involvement in American commercial life prior to the great European migrations of the late 1800s.

“Arthur and I began (in 2011) to talk about digitization and what he and I both call ‘open access.’ The issue was whether Penn would want to take over a collection like this, with about 11,000 items, catalog it and then bring it online. That’s a real resource commitment,” Kaplan said.

Carton Rogers, the former director of libraries at Penn, made the decision to move forward.

“Carton said, ‘We’ll do it,’” Kaplan recalled. “I have only looked back thinking this has to be one of the best decisions I’ve ever made, outside of a family decision.”

The Kaplans, originally from Pittsburgh and now living in Sarasota, Florida, have been collectors of early Americana and early American Judaica since the early 1970s; their collection is now recognized as one of the most important private collections of its kind. It’s a collection they’ve been eager to share.

“We’ve only kept one thing, and that’s totally out of the period — Manfred Anson’s menorah with Statues of Liberty on it,” Kaplan said. “I was quite pleased to be able to have Penn take the responsibility for this collection. Even Arthur (Kiron) used to say to me, ‘What if your house burned down?’”

Oil portrait of Manuel Josephson
Oil portrait of Rachel Josephson, likely a wedding portrait, circa 1763. She was the wife of Mikveh Israel President Manuel Josephson,
(Courtesy of Arnold Kaplan)

Kaplan’s favorite piece in the collection is not what many would expect. The 1763 wedding portraits of Mikveh Israel’s Revolutionary-era president, Manuel Josephson, the man who’d later exchange correspondence with George Washington upon the latter’s ascendancy to the presidency, are what most people guess.

“They’re incredibly important paintings,” Kaplan acknowledged. But they’re not his favorite.

His favorite is a letter written by a Jewish man in Pittsburgh to Isaac Leeser, a mid-19th century rabbi who lived in Philadelphia and is considered antebellum America’s most influential Jewish leader.

“It’s a simple, humble letter, circa 1852 or 1856,” Kaplan said. It was written on behalf of the 20 or so Jewish families living in Pittsburgh’s Jewish community, struggling to make ends meet. The man spoke of the struggle the Jewish families had in providing for their families, when the men could only work for five days but had to feed their families for seven.

“Here’s a fellow who kept his faith, did what had to be done, worked for five but somehow fed his family for seven. That’s the ultimate in faith — he did what was required of him. Pretty hard for us to consider today, but that’s my favorite one. I always go back to that letter,” said Kaplan.

The digitization of the entire collection means that Kaplan will still have access to the historical document. “I can read it any time I want,” he said.

In the meantime, the Kaplans are still collecting.

“We haven’t stopped buying. The only difference is instead of coming to my house, it goes to their house,” he said, meaning Penn. “It’s been an ongoing process, and as long as I’m willing and able, I’d like to keep it as an ongoing process.”

That would be just fine with Kiron.

“The word ‘transformational’ is thrown around in philanthropic circles, but what does it mean to transform a reality or have a great impact?” Kiron asked. “In terms of American Judaism and the role of American Jews in American history, broadly, (the Kaplan Collection) provides an archival foundation for rethinking so many aspects of the history of Jews in this country and this hemisphere.”

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