To read through the archives of Congregation Mikveh Israel, which are slowly but surely being digitized and transcribed by professional staff and volunteers in a project concerning the oldest congregations in Philadelphia, is to encounter the repeated occurrence of certain eternal practices.
Ledgers record births and deaths from as long ago as the American Revolution. Similar documentation is made of marriages, britot milah and an application to the city of Philadelphia requesting permission to construct a mikvah. But the archival records that seem to most tickle Rabbi Albert Gabbai of the modern-day Mikveh Israel are the synagogue board meeting minutes. Reading minutes from a 1782 board meeting, Gabbai came across a familiar mixture of camaraderie and rancor, serious discussion and idle chatter.
“It’s a mirror of today,” Gabbai said.
The project, entitled “Digitizing the Records of Philadelphia’s Historic Congregations: Providing Documentation for the Political, Social and Cultural Developments in Philadelphia,” kicked off with a $385,205 grant from the Council on Library and Information Resources to the Christ Church Preservation Trust in 2018.
It is concerned with the digitizing and transcribing the records of Christ Church, St. George’s Methodist Church, Gloria Dei, African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas, Episcopal Dioceses Archives, Presbyterian Historical Society, St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, American Baptist Historical Society and Mikveh Israel. The documents collected within the archive of each house of worship span the early 18th century to the late 19th century.
Within the records that concern Mikveh Israel, scanned documents include a 300-page seating ledger covering 1857-1866, letters from Rebecca Gratz, nearly 500 pages of charitable contribution receipts and even meeting minutes from 1782-1791, which records the synagogue’s founding.
Some of the documents have been transcribed in full, some are being chipped away at and others remain untouched. Christ Church Preservation Trust seeks to digitize and transcribe just over 41,000 pages.
The goal, according to Carol Smith, an archivist at the trust, is to provide an easily accessible resource to scholars and the public alike, each of whom may find their own interest piqued by, say, where Haym Solomon sat in Mikveh Israel, or what’s contained in George Washington’s letter to the synagogue. Some could even use the archive to add detail to their understanding of their ancestors.
That the project is an ecumenical undertaking, Smith said, is a deliberate reflection of the character of the archives that she and her colleagues are seeking to make accessible.
“We know that Benjamin Levy [a prominent Mikveh Israel congregant of its early period] contributed to the building of the steeple of Christ Church,” Smith said. “I want to see if we can’t try to find more of those cross references between the congregations.”
The archives of each individual congregation are too great for a small team to digitize and transcribe on their own and, thus, the project farms out some of the transcription to a “robust community” of volunteers, Smith said. That community has only grown during quarantine, as the number of people with enough time on their hands to try and parse two century-old handwriting has risen. About 3,000 pages have been transcribed since March by volunteers from across the country.
Still, much remains to be transcribed. According to scholars in the field of American Jewish history familiar with the project, such a rich, detailed archive of a single community like Mikveh Israel can yield important findings for researchers. Knowing where community members rented their seats within the synagogue, according to Michelle Margolis Chesner, Norman E. Alexander Librarian for Jewish Studies at Columbia University, is more than a matter of one’s preferred sight line to the bimah. It can send a signal through the centuries about social hierarchies of the day.
Margolis Chesner said the fact that different languages are used by different recordkeepers — English, Hebrew and even Dutch — can tell researchers something about the community’s makeup.
“What are the tensions that are going on? Are there tensions because people are coming from all over the place? Are there tensions because some people want to move toward a more progressive practice, or more toward a religious practice? It really gives you a snapshot into the religious life of the community,” Margolis Chesner said.
And she added the one important takeaway from any synagogue archive, Mikveh Israel included: “You realize, first, that synagogue conflict is eternal.”
Arthur Kiron, the Schottenstein-Jesselson Curator of Judaica Collections at the University of Pennsylvania’s Herbert D. Katz Center for Advanced Judaic Studies, finds much to consider in the records of Mikveh Israel’s conflicts, but plenty in its mundanities, too. Membership structures and seating arrangements are a rich vein for contemporary historians grasping to understand the social dynamics at play in a bygone era.
“It’s a really incredible social history that’s not only interesting to social historians or religious historians,” Kiron said, “but to people interested in the history of their community — genealogists, family historians.” Smith, like Kiron, believes that the archive has much to offer the general public. She said that her team hopes to produce lesson plans that will guide students and teachers through the archive.
Gabbai, too, believes that the archive has utility to his congregation, distinct from what it provides researchers.
The synagogue’s history, he said, is “one of its very important assets.”
“If we did not have that history,” Gabbai said, “we’d be like any other synagogue.”
[email protected]; 215-832-0740