Critical History: Behind a Major Gift for a “Jewish Library of Congress”

Andrea Izzotti/shutterstock

Andrea Izzotti/shutterstock

Three years from now, if all goes according to plan, photographs, primary documents and other archival material detailing the history and living legacy of Jews in the Diaspora will be more accessible to the public and better preserved so that they endure for years to come. Making this possible is a $2.5 million matching grant to the Center for Jewish History, which is located in New York City just off Union Square.

The CJH—which, a few years ago, faced a financial crisis that threatened its viability—is a partnership of five Jewish organizations: the American Jewish Historical Society, American Sephardi Federation, Leo Baeck Institute of New York (which focuses on German Jewry), the Yeshiva University Museum and YIVO Institute for Jewish Research.

The matching grant, which will hopefully result in a total of $5 million raised by the CJH, is provided by Arcadia, a charitable fund of Lisbet Rausing and Peter Baldwin. Arcadia, which has awarded more than $570 million to projects around the world since 2002, primarily funds environmental preservation groups and provides free public access to historical materials. Both Rausing and Baldwin are historians.

CJH’s constituent organizations have their own administration and governance, but co-locate their resources. Together it is the largest collection of Jewish historical material outside of Israel and has been referred to as the “Jewish Library of Congress.”

“The collections span a thousand years, with more than five miles of archival documents (in dozens of languages and alphabet systems), more than 500,000 volumes, as well as thousands of artworks, textiles, ritual objects, recordings, films and photographs,” according to the CJH.

CJH Director of Archive and Library Services Rachel Miller said in a statement, “In the collections, the lives of community leaders, artists, soldiers, survivors, housekeepers and others congregate to tell the story of the Jewish experience, with its broad sweep of persecution, resilience and hope.”

The goal of the three-year fundraising period in which CJH aims to match the $2.5 million Arcadia donation is to “allow for greater public engagement with the collections” housed there, the organization said in a statement.

These days, the CJH buzzes with activity, offering multiple talks and presentations in a typical week, all of it centered on recent historical scholarship, music, art exhibitions and symposia. In addition, it offers fellowships to graduate students in history and the humanities. Individuals interested in researching their own family genealogy can also access the CJH’s archives, some of which are available online.

Current exhibitions offered by its member organizations include a particularly timely one offered by YIVO titled “The Door Slams Shut: Jews and Immigration in the Face of American Reaction,”  and one titled “Kindertransport: Rescuing Children on the Brink of War,” presented jointly by the Leo Baeck Institute and Yeshiva University Museum.

But CJH’s picture didn’t always look so bright. It opened its doors in 2002 after obtaining a bank-issued letter of credit to back some $30 million in tax-exempt bonds in order to finance its construction. CJH was taking payments out of its endowment to service the debt and that letter of credit was expiring at the end of 2010. CJH founder Bruce Slovin and the board of directors were in crisis mode as they struggled to raise enough money to retire the organization’s construction debt. Few nonprofit organizations dared initiate capital campaigns so soon after the national financial crisis of 2008. They narrowly raised enough money to retire the debt.

In 2017, the most recent year for which its tax filing statement is publicly available, the CJH reported more than $5.7 million in donations—a dip from 2016, when it reported $8 million in donations—and $48 million in net assets.

One of the most striking visual aspects of the CJH building is the terrazzo floor on the main level. Created by artist Michele Oka Donor, it contains inlaid images of the Biblical species of fruits and vegetation, including pomegranates, wheat and grapes, which Moses’ seven spies brought into the promised land.