Jewish Museum and Archives of British Columbia archivist Alysa Routtenberg holds a minute book from Victoria’s Congregation Emanu-El, circa 1920. (photo from Alysa Routtenberg)
The documents and artifacts collected, processed and housed by the Jewish Museum and Archives of British Columbia are part of “everyone’s story,” JMABC archivist Alysa Routtenberg told the Independent in a recent interview. She encouraged people to donate material, join museum walking tours and visit the archives.
Routtenberg, who was born and raised in Vancouver, did her undergraduate studies in history and art history at the University of British Columbia before heading to Montreal for two years to earn her master’s of library information and archival studies at McGill University. In the summer of 2014, she had the opportunity to work in her field at the JMABC and, when she completed her studies, the museum’s then-archivist, Jennifer Yuhasz, was getting ready to move on and Routtenberg won the job.
“I ended up moving back to Vancouver, and was lucky enough to get this position not that long after I moved back to start my career as an archivist here,” she said.
Routtenberg’s family has been very involved in historical societies and groups for generations, and she always has loved her family’s library and the study of history.
“We did a lot of trips – like Fort Langley and all sorts of museums and things – so I always knew I wanted a career in history,” she said. “It was just a matter of figuring out the practicality of what that looked like.”
The JMABC originally started out as the Jewish Historical Society of British Columbia in 1971. Its founding president was Routtenberg’s grandfather, Cyril Leonoff, who passed away last year. Since its beginnings, the museum’s mandate has evolved, but the core objective has stayed the same – to preserve, collect and share the history of Jewish people in British Columbia.
The museum and archives makes information “accessible so people can come in and research,” said Routtenberg. “Then, we try to use that material in our public programming, whether that be with walking tours, lectures or physical exhibits. It’s all about celebrating and sharing the history. It’s a fairly short history compared to Jewish people in other provinces, but that doesn’t mean it’s any less important.”
The oldest material in the archives is from 1862 – from Congregation Emanu-El in Victoria. While not Canada’s oldest synagogue, it is the oldest synagogue in continuous use in the country. It’s been open and operational ever since it was started a couple years after Jews first arrived in the province.
“They were mostly coming up from California during the gold rush,” said Routtenberg of these pioneers. “And then, they developed businesses and, within a couple years, wanted to start a synagogue. So, that’s our oldest material. They are pretty special … very beautiful … handwritten notebooks and things.”
The first Jewish arrivals, she said, “set up businesses where they sold supplies to the guys who were going off panning [for gold]. So, that’s what allowed them to build a community. They built a business, a home, then a synagogue…. A couple guys called themselves wholesalers, selling every kind of supply. And then, as soon as there were actually people staying in Victoria and wanting to live there … I know there were a couple clothing stores and then a women’s clothing store, specifically, and a fur store … that sort of thing.”
As others did, Jews kept trickling into British Columbia, moving west with the hope of a better life, with more space. In the 1920s and 1940s, the Jewish community got big population boosts and communal groups began to be organized. Some community groups and businesses have now been around for three or four generations.
“There were furniture and scrap metal dealers … and we’ve collected a lot of those stories, fortunately, while those people were still with us,” said Routtenberg. “We’ve been able to write a couple of books about them,” she said, referring to the JMABC’s annual journal, The Scribe. The museum also publishes a newsletter, The Chronicle, twice a year.
Routtenberg’s job is to collect and preserve all the historical artifacts from the Jewish community, and the artifacts are divided into two major groups.
One group is family collections, which includes letters, photos, certificates and any other correspondence or paper material a family produced over the years. In that area, the JMABC has many great collections from a range of people.
“They were involved with any number of organizations,” said Routtenberg. “We’ll have their handwritten notes from meetings from the 1950s. We’ll have their letters back and forth with relatives across the country. Those are the sorts of things we have in the family collection.”
The second group focuses on community organizations, with collections from the Jewish Community Fund and Council, the Canadian Jewish Congress and the Hebrew Free Loan Association, as but three examples. The material in these collections includes correspondence, meeting minutes, agendas, publications they produced, information relating to events, etc.
“We’re very lucky in that most of the synagogues in the city have agreed to donate their materials to us,” added Routtenberg. “We collect the material related to the synagogue’s administration, meeting minutes, member lists, committee minutes, photos, events and publications.”
One important aspect of Routtenberg’s job is to reach out to and speak with people and organizations, to explain what it is that the JMABC does, what types of things it collects and, at times, making house calls to help sort materials.
“Once materials have been fully processed, everything is in a file and we know exactly what it is, what the dates are, and where to find it,” said Routtenberg. “So, that’s the main job we do.
“We deal with a lot of research requests as well,” she added. “A lot of people call or email and they are researching their family, asking what information we might have about them. Also, a lot of students, from high school to doctoral students, contact us when they are doing projects and want to know about a theme.
“I’ll make notes about those. I’ll try to answer right away, but often it requires some searching. Usually, looking through material in the archives needs to wait for a volunteer to be available or I encourage people to come in themselves.”
Routtenberg especially enjoys getting to dig into a box, and she has made some exciting discoveries.
“Something I love finding are handwritten letters,” she said. “We have a number of collections in the archives that are very thorough. There’s one that’s [between] a couple who was in Vancouver and Montreal in 1920, and they wrote letters back and forth.
“They met in Montreal, I believe, and then were secretly engaged for I think six months or so. And they wrote letters everyday, sometimes twice a day, back and forth. It’s those kinds of things that people don’t necessarily think is important, but they tell us so much about what life was like back then – things they struggled with and thought about. They are just beautiful.”
The archives are meant to preserve everyone’s history, not just the visible part of the community, stressed Routtenberg.
“If we don’t preserve our history, no one else will,” she said. “That’s what it comes down to at the end of the day. It’s really easy for people to think they’re not important, that their stuff isn’t important, thinking there is no reason why we would want it. People, all the time, bring stuff from the 1970s and 1980s, and they think it’s not important … but, if we don’t do it now, it never gets to be 150 years old.
“And we get so many research requests – we average 650 to 700 per year. These are all people with a wide range of questions wanting to know about the Jewish community. I don’t want to have to sit there and explain something, because I happen to know it – I want the evidence to back it up, providing the original documents for people to be able to come and look through.
“We’ve really been trying to promote community ownership of these archives,” she said. “They’re not this thing to be locked away from the public. They’re really everyone’s story.”
For more information, visit jewishmuseum.ca.
Rebeca Kuropatwa is a Winnipeg freelance writer.