Executive Director of The Wyner Family Jewish Heritage Center at American Ancestors / New England Historic Genealogical Society
By D. Brenton Simons
Published January 10, 2023
For many years, American Ancestors/New England Historic Genealogical Society has been involved in Jewish history and genealogy, but this activity has not always been widely known. The late Rabbi Malcom Stern, an eminent genealogist, was an active member of our Society in the 1970s and ‘80s. I was fortunate early in my career here in the 1990s to work with the late Natalie Brooks Friendly, wife of Little House on the Prairie television producer Ed Friendly, to publish a ground-breaking and an award-winning genealogy of the Friendlys —a Jewish family in America that has included several famous descendants from the world of media, jurisprudence, and other fields. In subsequent years, our commitment to Jewish history and genealogy has expanded exponentially.
In 2010, we developed a partnership with the American Jewish Historical Society’s New England Archives (AJHS–NEA) to better fulfil our mission in serving broad and diverse audiences with the best heritage experiences, resources, and scholarly content. That partnership ultimately, led to the founding of the Jewish Heritage Center (JHC) in 2015. The leading proponents in this effort were our longtime and stalwart supporters, Honorary Trustee Justin “Jerry” Wyner and his late wife, Genevieve, who worked closely with our then Chief Operating Officer Tom Wilcox and others, including the late Judi Garner, manager of the AJHS–NEA. In 2018, we named the Jewish Heritage Center for the Wyners in recognition of their advocacy and support. Today, the multi-talented Rachel King serves as our Executive Director of the Wyner Family Jewish Heritage Center where she and her team are doing great things. I recently had the opportunity to interview Rachel about this fascinating and important work forThe Antiquarto.
Brenton Simons: What are your goals in serving the genealogical and historical communities?
Rachel King: The Jewish Heritage Center (JHC) is dedicated to preservation, access, and education: we preserve and document the history of Jewish families, institutions, and communities in New England and beyond; we provide access to our collections through our Digital Library and Archives and our reference services, serving thousands of genealogical and scholarly researchers all over the world each year; and we develop public programs and educational resources illuminating both the history in our collections and American Jewish history writ large.
Our overarching goal is to advance the study and understanding of Jewish history and heritage. This history is an essential piece of the American story; as such, we draw people of all backgrounds to our programs who want to learn more. Many of us in the Jewish and historical fields also believe that documenting Jewish history and educating wide audiences about Jewish contributions to our communities and our world is more important than ever in a time of rising antisemitism.
Brenton Simons: Tell us about some of the most important collections in the JHC?
Rachel King: The JHC’s collections contain more than two million documents about Jewish family and community history and are used by a wide range of audiences, from family historians, to scholars writing books, to institutions such as Yad Vashem in Israel and the Smithsonian. Some of our most important collections include the records of historically significant Jewish organizations in Boston and New England—including Combined Jewish Philanthropies, the oldest federated Jewish philanthropy in the United States; HIAS-Boston, an immigrant and refugee service helping Jews to arrive in Boston before, during, and after World War II; and the Jewish Community Relations Council of Boston, originally founded in the 1930s to galvanize the community to counter rising antisemitism. The JHC’s archives also hold hundreds of individual and family collections documenting Jewish participation in all areas of American life. Each collection, each family story is important; taken together, they chronicle the history of Jewish immigration to this country, the multigenerational process of becoming American, and Jewish contributions to both their religious and secular communities.
While our collections have a unique focus on Boston and New England, the history they document is also representative of the larger American Jewish experience. I’m proud of the work we’ve done to highlight a specific, regional history and what makes it unique and to connect it to the overall American Jewish story. Through the JHC’s funded Research Fellowship and Historian in Residence position, we are attracting national scholars who recognize the value of the JHC’s collections to this larger history. Our two Genevieve Wyner Research Fellows (2021 and 2022) have used our collections for their forthcoming books on Jewish women’s travel in the 19 th century and American observances of Passover, respectively. Our inaugural Historian in Residence this year is using our collections to explore the immigrant acculturation process in America, antisemitism during World War I and in the post-WWII period, the relationship between the Jewish and Irish communities, and more.
Brenton Simons: What other organizations do you work most closely with and why?
Rachel King: I believe deeply in partnering with other organizations – I always say that partnerships “lift all boats.” The JHC co-founded the New England Jewish History Collaborative in 2019, a consortium of Jewish history and genealogy organizations representing all six New England states. The Collaborative has worked together to promote awareness of New England Jewish history and the resources available to study it; we created a central website as a guide to these resources, and we have held two online public programs (organized and hosted by the JHC), focusing on facets and themes of New England Jewish history. In the past year, the JHC and other members of the Collaborative also participated in a national program with JewishGen.
In Boston, the JHC partners with the Jewish Genealogical Society of Greater Boston, the Jewish Arts Collaborative, and Vilna Shul, and we are establishing ongoing relationships with some of the organizations whose collections we steward in the archives, including Combined Jewish Philanthropy, the Jewish Community Relations Council, and Action for Post-Soviet Jewry. Lastly, and importantly, we are pleased to partner within American Ancestors: the JHC has co-sponsored programs with both the American Inspiration and Art & Architecture series, and we co-present “Preservation Roadshow” and “Stories from the Archives” webinars with our NEHGS Special Collections and Conservation colleagues.
Brenton Simons: What are the most common challenges in Jewish family history?
Rachel King: As with many ancestries, Jewish genealogical research runs into challenges presented by changing names and changing borders over the centuries. While many people are familiar with the practice of families changing their surnames after arriving in the United States, their names and places of origin might also change while they were still in the “Old Country,” for a variety of reasons. Within some of our collections pertaining to Ukraine, for example, we see multiple names for the village a family is from, as it went from being part of Russia to part of Ukraine, and vice versa.
It is a truism that Jewish genealogy is especially difficult because the records of Jewish families and communities were decimated by the Nazis. They did destroy a lot, but genealogists and historians have nevertheless located many extant records across Europe and Eastern Europe. Additionally, many new records were created during and after the war that have helped researchers locate individuals and families. Jewish genealogy is a burgeoning field, and there are increasing numbers of specialties and resources available to help people discover their own family history, as well as to learn about Jewish communities and migration around the world.
Brenton Simons: What content are we developing that you would like the public to know about?
Rachel King: I’m excited about our “Jewish Neighborhood Voices” oral history project, for which we received an “Expanding Massachusetts Stories” grant from Mass Humanities, and a “Community Impact” grant from Combined Jewish Philanthropies. The goal of this pilot project is to capture firsthand accounts of people who lived in four formerly Jewish immigrant communities of Greater Boston, before the living links to these neighborhoods are gone. We want contemporary audiences learn about the lives and contributions of the Jewish community in Greater Boston, and to better understand the richly textured and layered history of their communities. The JHC conducted oral history interviews this summer with people who are first- or second-generation members of families that came to the United States in the early twentieth century and settled in four formerly Jewish immigrant neighborhoods of Greater Boston: Chelsea, Dorchester, Lynn, and Roxbury. These histories will be preserved and archived in our Digital Library and Archives; they will also be curated and used in conjunction with materials from the JHC archives for an online exhibit, to go live in Spring 2023.
We have been offering a three-part course about Jewish immigration to the U.S., taught by American Jewish historians; the third and final installment of this chronological survey will be taught in March 2023 by our Historian in Residence, Dr. Miriam Eve Mora, and will study Jewish immigration to and acculturation in the United States from 1924 to 1955. I think it’s important for people to understand the context of Jewish life in America, and these classes have presented important information and insight about Jewish immigration to and settlement in this country.
Brenton Simons: Describe our educational programming activities through JHC.
Rachel King: In the past few years, the JHC has offered a rich array of public programs about Jewish history, heritage, and culture. These have ranged from a historical survey of Jewish family businesses in Boston, to a program about the social and geographical boundaries of Jewish and African American cemeteries, to a panel discussion about Jewish summer camps—and so much more! As mentioned above, we have also offered a course about Jewish immigration to America, and workshops about how to use the JHC’s collections for genealogical research. We have hosted a series of in-person “Archives Shabbat” programs, which combine a Shabbat (Friday night) dinner in the American Ancestors rotunda with a lively talk about a topic of Jewish history and culture; during these events, we share materials from the archives related to the topic and allow the audience to see them up-close.
The JHC also develops helpful resources for historians, genealogists, and the general public—from the subject guides on our website that spotlight major themes in our collections and in Jewish history, to how-to guides on using our collections for genealogical research, to lesson plans for teachers. Archival collections offer a treasure trove of primary-source history; we want our educational programming to capture and share the excitement so many people experience when they come into close contact with the original materials of their ancestors’ public and private lives.
Brenton Simons: What is your favorite success story in your work at JHC?
Rachel King: I am pleased to have secured funding for scholarship that puts our collections on a national level. By attracting scholars to the JHC through our annual Research Fellowship and the new Historian in Residence position, we are gaining visibility not just as a regional archive but as a rich repository of American Jewish history. We have seen increased use and citations of our collections by researchers and institutions around the world. Our new Historian in Residence position enables the JHC not just to be a resource for historians and scholars, but to produce our own scholarship from the collections, as well.
The JHC came to NEHGS as an operational archive. While our collections are still the beating heart of our operation, I am proud that we have truly become a center that supports scholarship and genealogy, offers public programming and education, is a strong partner to other organizations, and is becoming a leader in our region and in our field. It has also been a priority for us to align archives and genealogy and to incorporate genealogical activities into the JHC’s offerings.
Brenton Simons: What is your greatest accomplishment in serving our audiences?
Rachel King: We have brought education, service, and access to JHC and NEHGS audiences. With the partnership of Ginevra Morse and the NEHGS Education and Programming team, we have been able to offer rich educational programs that have raised awareness of American Jewish history among Jewish and non-Jewish audiences alike. As an attendee of one JHC webinar told us: “I am not Jewish, but I found this a fascinating and compelling topic. Thank you for today's history lesson.” By being at American Ancestors/NEHGS, the JHC is fortunate to have a unique opportunity to reach diverse audiences.
I would also like to point to the Digital Library and Archives as one of our important contributions to serving a large audience; the JHC was an early adopter of digitization of archival documents as a means of preservation and accessibility, and we launched the Digital Archives not long after we arrived at NEHGS. We eventually combined the JHC’s digitized collections with digital records from NEHGS’s Special Collections, to form the Digital Library and Archives. This digital resource has been invaluable for people to access our combined collections from all over the world. Author Charles Gallagher used the Jewish Community Relations Council records in the JHC archives extensively for his 2020 book The Nazis of Copley Square, and commented in an online program: “The Wyner Family Jewish Heritage Center is the most technologically advanced of all the archives I’ve ever worked in.”
Brenton Simons: How did you get into this field?
Rachel King: I’ve spent nearly all of my career working in nonprofit communications and fundraising for educational and cultural organizations in the Greater Boston area. Prior to coming to the JHC/NEHGS, I was at the Jewish Women’s Archive, another organization dedicated to illuminating American Jewish history, specifically the stories and achievements of Jewish women. Early in my career I set out to get a PhD in literature and become an academic (before realizing it wasn’t the life for me), so I am pleased to come full circle and work in a field that supports scholarship, research, and discovery.
Brenton Simons: Who helps you in your work at JHC?
Rachel King: The JHC’s Advisory Council is made up of Jewish communal leaders, philanthropists, academics, and genealogists, who meet quarterly and advise JHC staff. In 2019, the Advisory Council undertook a strategic planning process for the JHC, led by member Herb Selesnick, a retired strategic consultant. The Council developed a strategic plan for the JHC that laid out priorities and goals for the JHC through 2025. The plan has been very helpful to us in focusing and reporting on our activities.
The JHC staff is extraordinarily dedicated to preserving and maintaining the materials in our archives, providing access to the public, and developing educational resources and content that spotlight the materials and put them in context. As well, our NEHGS colleagues provide invaluable support to the JHC. Education, programming, marketing, and communications specialists help us plan and host events, get the word out about our activities, update our website, and so much more.
We are grateful to the people and infrastructure of NEHGS. The individuals who originally conceptualized the collaboration between NEHGS and AJHS–NEA—which became the Wyner Family Jewish Heritage Center at NEHGS—created a strategic, farsighted institutional partnership and a strong new branch in the family tree!
To contact Rachel King at the Wyner Family Jewish Heritage Center at American Ancestors / New England Historic Genealogical Society, please email her at email@example.com or visit the The Wyner Family Jewish Heritage Center at American Ancestors / New England Historic Genealogical Society online at https://jewishheritagecenter.org/