The wandering Jewish archive
Several months ago, the Jerusalem-based Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People (CAHJP) received a copy of the birth registry from the Russian town of Buguruslan. The registry revealed that Mordechai Olmert, a former Herut MK and the father of the current prime minister, was born there in May 1911. Another document contains a 1929 photograph of Mordechai Olmert, who was a member of the champion boxing league of the Jewish community in Harbin, China.
These are only two examples illustrating the scope of the archive's collection. With more than 60 million documents, the CAHJP is the third-largest archive in Israel, after the Israel State Archives and the Zionist Archives.
The CAHJP documents Jewish community and family life in 50 nations, starting from the 12th century. Yet, despite the enormous importance of this collection and the fact that 2,000 researchers use the documents every year, the CAHJP has no permanent headquarters, its warehouses are scattered throughout Jerusalem, and its offices roam from place to place. Scanty government funding makes it difficult for the institution to acquire new documents, and exposes existing documents to possible ruin.
The archive was founded in Israel in the 1930s, with the archives of communities including Saint Petersburg, Kiev and Berlin. In 1940, Ben Tzion Dinor, who later became the minister of education, officially incorporated the archive. The Hebrew University allocated a room at the Mt. Scopus campus so the archive could begin collecting documents from other communities.
In 1944, the History Society of Israel accepted responsibility for the archive, and in 1969, the archive became the domain of a society established by the State of Israel, the Jewish Agency, the History Society, the Academy of Sciences, the Hebrew University, the Tel Aviv University and Bar-Ilan University. Many European Jewish communities sent their documents to the CAHJP before the communities were destroyed in the Holocaust. When Jewish institutions in Danzig were shuttered in 1939, for instance, more than 2,000 documents were dispatched to Jerusalem. Moritz Stern, librarian of the Jewish community in Berlin, sent the community's documents to the archive on the eve of the war.
"The archive belongs to the Jewish People, but in practice it belongs to no one, and that is precisely the problem," says archive director Hadassah Assouline. Says the chairman, Professor Ya'akov Barnai: "The archive's status is unstable and no official body is actually responsible for us."
The archive receives minimal funding from the Ministry of Culture - NIS 1.28 million in 2006, a sum that did not even cover the salaries of the 11 employees. Its funding is not anchored in law, and the CAHJP thus must appeal to the ministry annually. Moreover, the ministry is not obligated to fund the archive if its own budget is cut.
The rest of the budget comes from private donations and grants. This dependence produces a state of affairs common to many Jewish cultural institutions: Many institutional and private donors are willing to contribute to specific projects but not to operational expenses, like salaries, municipal taxes, electricity and pest control.
Meanwhile, the archive's ambiguous status forces it to wander from one location to another. The offices and central warehouse have moved six times in the past 60 years. A few months ago, the archive headquarters moved out of a Rehavia neighborhood monastery, across the street from the President's Residence, to two aging, single-floor former dorms on the Hebrew University's Givat Ram campus. Dr. Mor Altschuler, a former member of the archive's board, calls the institution "The Wandering Jew." Archive leaders are deeply grateful to the Hebrew University because, unlike other institutions involved in managing the archive, the university offered space and asked nothing in return.
The ravages of time
Budget limitations prevent the CAHJP from competing for valuable documents. "They used to offer things to me, but when they saw I wasn't buying, they stopped coming. It's a shame, because these things wind up in private hands and disappear," Assouline says.
Unlike other Israeli archives, and despite these circumstances, the archive has managed to preserve the documents in its collection. But the management fears that given the meager preservation budget, rare documents will succumb to the ravages of time. "Some certificates are already in a poor state and there is no money to restore them," Assouline says. Altschuler adds, "The archive was entrusted with the state, and the state has betrayed that trust."
Archive leaders hope that the CAHJP will find a home in the new national library. The Yad Hanadiv Foundation has proposed funding the library, currently in preliminary stages of planning. CAHJP officials also hope that funding will be found to produce a computerized database of the archive's collection, scan some of the documents, and display others to the public. (Researchers are now forced to rummage through files in drawers.)