Archivists giving priority to reviving small-town histories
May 24, 2015 12:00 AM
Courtesy Tammy Hepps
Hepps Pharmacy in Homestead in 1922. Owner Bernhardt Hepps is standing at left, in white shirt. His great-granddaughter Tammy Hepps last year gave up a job at NBC in New York to piece together the picture of her family's and the Jewish community's legacy in Homestead.
By Diana Nelson Jones / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Archivists at the Heinz History Center had been planning the Small Town Jewish History Project when Tammy Hepps showed up to devote her time to researching her family’s legacy in Homestead.
Susan Melnick, a former staff archivist, is now a contractor with the History Center directing the small town project. She and Eric Lidji, a writer and archivist, began field work in March with a year of funding from the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, the PNC Charitable Trust, Youngstown Area Jewish Federation and the Heinz History Center.
They have collected oral histories and documents to bring as much continuity as possible from each town into the Rauh Jewish Archive and its Generation to Generation project on the website.
“This is a continuation of what the Rauh archives has been doing since its inception 25 years ago, but we’re doing this more proactively,” working in tandem with The Jewish Community Legacy Project, a national effort, she said.
“Congregations are facing demographic pressures, and in some places the congregations have disappeared. Sometimes the only records are names on gravestones in Jewish cemeteries.
“We feel this is a high priority right now.”
From New Castle to Washington to Sharon to Latrobe, Ms. Melnick and Mr. Lidji have met with legacy committees and existing congregations that are diminished or phasing out.
“One morning recently, a family came to the history center with pictures,” she said. “The grandfather and grandmother had a jewelry store in Altoona, then the father had a jewelry store in Kittanning and a cousin had one in Tarentum.”
The research Ms. Hepps has done on the history of Homestead’s Jewish residents has set a local standard based on the amount of information the Homestead congregation had the foresight to save and donate, Ms. Melnick said.
“Tammy is a poster child for archives,” Ms. Melnick said. “She is uncovering so many interesting things. She has collected a number of pictures that will now go into the Rauh Archives. She’s a great agent for us to show why this stuff is so important.”
The Small Town Jewish History Project wants congregational records, too, she said, “but we recognize that Jewish communities exist far beyond the synagogue walls. We want family papers and photographs and records and photographs of businesses.”
Residents in southwestern Pennsylvania who want to share that information can call Small Town History Project at 412-454-6315.
Ms. Hepps said she hopes her research will encourage others to see “the value in the histories of other small towns and cities that would be otherwise be lost.”
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