Dr. Furman with documents at Beth Yeshurun, Houston. Images: Michael Duke, Jewish Herald-Voice. Used with permission.

Preserving the Past In The Wake of a Storm

When a hurricane hit Houston, this historian got to work

When we think about disaster preparedness and relief, we think in large part about things: things we need to survive, things we need to feel comfortable, things we need to repair homes and neighborhoods, and, in the worst cases, things we need to start over. In the run-up to a disaster and in its aftermath, victims, emergency responders, and volunteers face tough choices about what matters most and what to save.

You’ve likely thought recently about what you would gather in an evacuation. I know I have: medications, small electronics (and chargers), identification and personal papers, pets, financial records, VHS tapes, jewelry. Where, though, do historical records fit in that list?

That’s a question that the recent, widespread flooding caused by Hurricane Harvey has forced the Jewish community of Houston to consider. As Michael C. Duke reports in the Jewish Herald-Voice, historic archives at Beth Yeshurun and United Orthodox Synagogues were damaged by the floodwaters, as were records and artifacts in family homes. Now, scholars and archivists at Rice University and University of Houston are working to salvage irreplaceable documents.

Joshua Furman, PhD, the Stanford and Joan Alexander Postdoctoral Fellow in Jewish Studies at Rice University, is among those organizing the preservation efforts. In addition to drying out waterlogged papers and preventing mold, he and his colleagues hope to use this opportunity to encourage families and individuals to think ahead about protecting historic materials. Working with archivist and historian Melissa Kean, Furman is now leading an effort to create a new archive for Houston Jewish history at Rice University. (You can email him for more information.) This effort will not only help to salvage flood-damaged records and photographs, but also prevent future damage by providing a secure repository for historic documents. It is an initiative that we should all be thinking about in the wake of recent storms in Texas and Florida.

Whether you have diaries, photographs, immigration records, audio tapes, or home videos, there are ways to ensure that these materials will survive a natural disaster. The best option for safeguarding historic documents is to donate them to a professionally run archive with up-to-date facilities. This might be a state historical archive, a special collections library at a nearby university, or a local museum. Ideally, a librarian or archivist can work with you to donate valuable materials, and the archive can provide digitized copies in return. It may also be worthwhile to organize a preservation effort across the Jewish community, as Furman and Kean are doing at Rice, in order to create a dedicated Jewish history collection within a suitable archive or library.

If you are unable to locate an appropriate archival partner or wish to keep the original copies for yourself and your family, it is still a good idea to digitize print and multimedia materials. Additionally, try to store digital or physical copies in multiple, separate locations; that way, even if the original document or one of the reproductions is damaged or lost, another copy will remain for posterity.

Furman notes that the Houston community is “all too familiar now with the devastation that flood damage can bring to individuals, families and institutions,” but hopes that the creation of this new archive at Rice will preserve local Jewish history and make it newly accessible to scholars and the general public. If you have questions about how you can protect Jewish historic materials in your own Southern Jewish community, please reach out to us. In keeping with our mission to preserve, analyze and disseminate Jewish histories in the South, the ISJL History Department is happy to help you find an archival partner or consider how you can best safeguard the stories of your families and communities.

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