Processing the Congregation Beth Ahm papers at the Jewish Community Archives (JCA)
By Laura Williams, MLIS student
The Practicum experience as a MLIS student was some of the most valuable hours of the program. Throughout the summer, I saw how the theories and best practices taught in the courses came to life as I processed a new collection from start to finish.
My practicum was spent at the Leonard N. Simons Jewish Community Archives of the Jewish Federation of Metro-Detroit or, for short, the Jewish Community Archives (JCA) in Bloomfield Hills, MI. Robbie Terman is the Director of the JCA and was an incredible guide during the practicum. My current job is also at an archive that collects and makes available Jewish collections, so I was automatically excited to expand my knowledge and learn from another part of the community in order to build skills for a topic I am passionate about.
Though I was able to get my hands dirty (literally) with a few different projects like working with 16mm film from the mid 20th century, my main project was to process the Congregation Beth Ahm papers. Congregation Beth Ahm is a synagogue located in West Bloomfield, with an incredibly rich history. I have passed the building hundreds, if not thousands of times in my life, but never knew much about it, until now! From the beginning, I realized that this was not an ordinary collection or even organization. Unlike the synagogue collections I have worked with in the past, Beth Ahm is actually a combination of about 8 different synagogues that merged over 120 or so years in Detroit. “Ahm” is an acronym, and was originally Abraham Hillel Moses, which were the three biggest, or final three synagogues that merged. This aspect of the collection created a vast amount of decisions about how to organize, file, and name the documents for potential researchers. Due to the many organizations under the Beth Ahm umbrella, consideration was made for those users that may be only looking at the papers of one of the merged synagogues and not simply Beth Ahm’s history since the late 1970s when the final merge occurred. Along with the guidance of Robbie Terman, I created a system that defined rules for organization as I put myself in the mind of a variety of researchers to best organize and describe the collection.
There was a lot to learn, not only about how to process in a small archive, but I learned a lot about the Metro-Detroit Jewish community. Beth Ahm’s story added many pieces to the bigger picture of how the community came together, moved, adapted, and even changed its practices. One example that stuck out to me was when I discovered some of the congregants actually sued the synagogue after the Board of Trustees instituted a new policy that allowed mixed-gender seating. For background, in traditional or orthodox Jewish synagogues, it is common practice to have separate areas for men and women. This new policy was a big change for a synagogue that had been traditional, but it shed light on the larger community’s shift toward a more progressive or liberal Judaism.
It was incredibly valuable to work with an archivist that is a “lone-arranger.” Ms. Terman was able to offer valuable insight, tools, and creativity within an archive that has one professional and has to advocate for her department within a larger institution. Ms. Terman also took time to show me how she has found resourceful ways to digitize and migrate videos for her oral history website, and proved that low budget does not mean impossible. By piecing together skills she has picked up in her information professional career, Ms. Terman has found how she can use a free version of one type of software and pair it with another to achieve the same goal as purchasing an expensive option. I am grateful that I was able to take in not only this example but many others from Ms. Terman through my hours spent at the JCA.
Projector used to view 16mm film