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Friday, October 9, 2015

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Jewish heritage week focuses on past and present

Teachers and students from Jewish People’s School enjoy a day at Mount Royal Park in this photo from the Jewish Pub-lic Library Archives, circa 1940-1950.

MONTREAL — The people who work daily to preserve the records of Jewish Montreal hope to change the image of archives as dusty relics of little interest to anyone but scholars of an obscure past.

The first annual Jewish Montreal Heritage Week, from May 5 to 12, aims to raise awareness of the treasures the community holds and that modern technology is making them accessible like never before.

In addition to ever-expanding digitization of collections by archivists, social media is also allowing amateurs to contribute as well to sharing this heritage.

Part of the aim of the week is to show young people, in particular, that the past is not really over, and they can play a role in connecting their history to today.

Initiated by the Jewish Public Library (JPL) Archives and the Montreal Holocaust Memorial Centre (MHMC), the week’s partners also include the Interactive Museum of Jewish Montreal (IMJM), the Canadian Jewish Congress (CJC) Charities Committee National Archives, the Jewish General Hospital Library and Archives, the Dora Wasserman Yiddish Theatre Archives, and the Cummings Jewish Centre for Seniors archives project.

Throughout the week, the new website (which is up now) will feature daily blog postings, virtual photo galleries and short videos highlighting the archival and museum collections of these institutions.

On May 9, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., the lobby of Federation CJA’s Cummings building will be the site of a Living Exhibit. Each of the participating organizations will display little-seen items of historical significance and staff will be on hand to explain how these materials are preserved.

On May 12, teams of mainly young adults will take part in a photographic scavenger hunt called reCollection. With clues in hand, including historical images from the JPL, they will race around the city discovering sites relevant to the Jewish experience, such as the former premises of its institutions or homes of famous authors.

Participants will take photos or videos of these locations as they are today, then upload them to such platforms as Pinterest, Twitter, Facebook or Instagram, thereby contributing to saving Montreal’s Jewish past.

ReCollection is hosted by the JPL Archives and the IMJM. Launched in 2010 and directed by Zev Moses, the IMJM is accessible online and through mobile devices.

The goal is to collect and share Montreal Jewish history – its events, places, people and stories – in a format that appeals to the young and tech-savvy.

Activities include mapping Jewish Montreal from its origins in the 1760s until today, providing written descriptions of sites on the map and linking them to archival images, while personalizing it all by adding personal stories, songs, poems or films.

Supported by the Jewish Community Foundation of Montreal and other organizations and individuals, the IMJM combines professionally curated exhibits with contributions by users.

“For the most part, archival collections have been behind closed doors, and few people even think about them or think they are unapproachable,” said Shannon Hodge, JPL Archives director. “We are bringing them out of the basements and the boxes and inviting people to see them and interact with us.”

Julie Guinard, co-ordinator of the MHMC collection, added, “Most people have no clue what an archive is. The week is a way to show that a lot of work is going into documenting and caring for archives in the community.”

Hodge noted that the Montreal Jewish community has one of the richest archival holdings in private hands in Canada. The JPL has over 1,200 linear metres of documents and artifacts, as well as over 30,000 photos, and the CJC archives is the repository of more than 1,450 linear metres. The MHMC has amassed over 10,000 items, including 3,000 photos and 500 video testimonies from Holocaust survivors.

Not all are the work of professionals. Since 2005, dedicated volunteers have catalogued more than 114,000 documents chronicling the Dora Wasserman Yiddish Theatre’s history since its founding in 1958.

This massive material is increasingly being digitized and consolidated. Three years ago, the JPL and CJC archives launched the Canadian Jewish Heritage Network ( to make this trove accessible.

Hodge thinks fun activities like reCollection will give younger Jews “a sense of ownership of their community’s past” through media that is second nature to them. The federation also hopes that the day will attract those who might otherwise not be affiliated with the community.

Jewish Montreal Heritage Week is sponsored by the Peter and Ellen Jacobs Virtual Archives Fund of the JPL. For more information or to subscribe to the event’s virtual guest list, contact Hodge at or phone 514-345-2627, ext. 3015.

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