MONTREAL — More than 25,000 database records of the Canadian Jewish community dating back to the 18th century are now available online in a readily searched format.
Shannon Hodge, left, demonstrates how to use the new Canadian Jewish Heritage Network website, as Janice Rosen looks on.
The new website Canadian Jewish Heritage Network (www.cjhn.ca) catalogues and blends the vast repositories of the Canadian Jewish Congress Charities Committee National Archives (CJC) and the Jewish Public Library Archives (JPL). The plan is that it will eventually become the virtual repository for the archives and collections of Jewish communities and groups across the country.
In addition, the site hosts more than 2,000 digitized photographs and documents, as well as more than 50,000 genealogical records and 5,000 associated images. There are also sound recordings and moving images.
All of this is growing, almost weekly. And it’s bilingual.
This ambitious undertaking was led by Janice Rosen and Shannon Hodge, archivists, respectively, of CJC and the JPL, who overcame the traditional rivalry between the two institutions to create a resource that enables the history of Canadian Jewry to be told for generations to come.
The project was funded by the Samuel and Saidye Bronfman Family Foundation (SSBFF).
The site is divided into four main sections: Explore, Experience, Enrich and Educate.
Explore is the entry point for searches by key words, with detailed tips on refining the quest; Experience is for browsing the digital content, much of it set up in slide-show galleries; Enrich offers information on how to donate archival material to the CJHN partners; and Educate outlines free teaching aids developed by CJHN for schools and organizations. They are designed to encourage youngsters to learn about their community’s past by using the archives.
The online material is not only searchable, it can be e-mailed, shared on social media, and printed. Many multi-page documents are available in pdf format. Orders for physical copies can be made directly from the web (for a fee, soon by PayPal.)
A mobile application is in the works, too, for those who want to check the archives while on the go.
The material, which largely comes from Montreal and Quebec City, encompasses organizations’ annual reports, minutes, speeches, and anniversary publications, and what archivists like to call ephemera, such as family correspondence or event programs.
The two institutions have also been entrusted over the decades with the papers of writers, politicians, community builders, teachers, activists and philanthropists.
The genealogical portal is sponsored by Penny Rubinoff of Toronto and the Jewish Genealogical Society of Montreal. Among its resources are Jewish Immigrant Aid Services’ client lists; Jewish Colonization Association (JCA) farm settler reports; translated Yiddish obituaries from the Keneder Adler newspaper; and the Hebrew Sick Benefit Association of Montreal’s membership book listings.
In addition, there is all of CJC’s information about Jewish servicemen casualties in the Canadian armed forces during World Wars I and II.
Some entries in the family history section list contain such information as the individual’s profession, street address, country of origin, and cause of death, which Rosen and Hodge think will be of interest to historians and sociologists, as well as their descendants.
Rubinoff, a Jewish family history buff, said at the site’s launch June 6, that she came across a 1911 JCA report about a young Jewish couple homesteading in Edenbridge, Sask. She learned their ages, that they came from Russia, and what crops and livestock they raised on 60 acres.
“I felt like crying and I’m not even related to them,” she said.
The actual archives of both partners continue to exist in their current locations: the JPL’s at the Jewish Community Campus, and CJC’s downtown in Samuel Bronfman House, owned by Concordia University.
Acquisitions from now on will be co-operative, Rosen said, although they have tended to complement one another anyway.
They are also developing more educational materials, virtual exhibits, and plan greater outreach to encourage organizations to entrust the preservation of their historic materials to professional custody.
The advice of Hodge is to “play with the site.” It is user-friendly, but not what she would call easy. The archivists are eager to assist users, and welcome questions and comments, as the site is “organic,” changing constantly.
CJC archives chair Norma Joseph said at the launch that the enormous content makes clear that the history of Canadian Jewry is distinct from its American neighbours, and that the community is diverse.
Stephen Bronfman, an SSBFF board member, added that the site brings the story of the community to non-Jews as well. “It’s important to get this knowledge out there.”
Marc Gold, the new president of United Israel Appeal Federations Canada, was credited by Joseph with keeping the archives in Montreal. The Toronto federation made an offer to consolidate all archives there after CJC no longer had the budget, but many in Montreal resisted.
Gold said the Montreal federation should be thanked because it has now assumed the archives’ funding, through a permanent endowment of the Alex and Ruth Dworkin Foundation.
“When you have to provide for the most vulnerable, for education, when you have to make cuts, it takes vision to say the archives are important,” Gold said.
“But if we are the people of memory, then this is a tangible expression of what we have to offer to our children and to the world.”