It was 1973. Smaller Jewish communities across Ontario were shrinking and synagogues were closing as younger residents migrated—mostly to Toronto where Jewish institutions were thriving. In an effort to preserve the province’s Jewish heritage and keep it in the community’s hands, the Ontario Jewish Archives were created.
Now, some four and a half decades of rapid change later, the OJA is asking what impact the archives have had on the Jewish community and how they help cultivate a sense of belonging, identity and memory in the age of the internet.
These same questions also preoccupy scholars and archival professionals at the Faculty of Information whose interest in community archives has been piqued in recent years. They are looking to evaluate the programs and services these archives provide to better understand how to respond to communities’ heritage and memory preserving needs.
Dean Wendy Duff and alumna Donna Bernardo-Ceriz, a 2014 archives and records management graduate who is now Managing Director and Archivist of the Ontario Jewish Archives, Blankenstein Family Heritage Centre, discussed how the OJA would make an interesting case study. The two organizations agreed to apply together for a Partnership Engage grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. And in November, they got word that their application was successful.
OJA, Blankenstein Family Heritage Centre Director Dara Solomon says the Archives preserve the individual and collective experiences of Jewish Ontarians and share back these narratives in meaningful ways both within and outside the community “I am always trying to make the case that our work at the Archives contributes significantly to building and strengthening our Jewish identity. People connect in new ways to their individual pasts and to this shared history, which ensures the continuity of the community.”
In recent years, the Archives have raised their profile, making their entire collection searchable online and maintaining a lively social media presence. Solomon says people often recognize relatives when they crop up in historical photos shown on Facebook and Twitter. The OJA has also staged a number of high profile exhibits including one on the architect Benjamin Brown, whose architectural drawings it preserves. Brown’s iconic loft-style buildings on lower Spadina characterized the garment district for much of the 20th century.
Solomon says that she regularly hears and sees on people’s faces the impact of the Archives, but “to be able to prove that case more than anecdotally is really important.”
With the OJA’s parent organization, the UJA Federation of Greater Toronto, striving to be more metrics driven and to understand how its spending affects the community, now is an ideal time for the study that will be carried out as a result of the Partnership Engage grant. The funds will allow two Faculty of Information students to work on the research project. The first will be an “embedded archivist” contributing to the Archives’ daily activities and informally interviewing staff, volunteers, teachers, donors, archives users and more.
Working with the four OJA staff members, the student will identify methodologies to demonstrate the difference the OJA makes in its community. In the second phase of the study, the student will gather data using the approved methodologies. In phase three, a second student will join the project to analyse and report on the data and assess the methodologies developed.
“This research will allow the OJA to clearly show its value to their community,” says Duff, an archives scholar. “For the Faculty, it’s a pilot project that we will be able to use to help other community archives evaluate their roles and relevance. We are so excited to be working together with the OJA in this key field.”