In 1997 Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel published a short volume to commemorate its 150th anniversary. The book noted: “With Keneseth Israel’s long and significant role in the history of Jewish life in Philadelphia, it is little wonder the synagogue houses one of the most extensive synagogue archives in existence.” The Archives was founded in 1974 at the suggestion of Rabbi Bertram W. Korn, who was a significant historian of American Jewish history, as well as the senior rabbi at KI, and a Real Admiral in the U.S. Naval Reserve. The Archives collects and preserves the records, documents, and other materials that make up the history of KI. This includes correspondence of the rabbis, minutes of the board and various synagogue committees, photographs, programs, membership lists, video and audio recordings, newspaper and magazine clippings, articles written by or pertaining to the rabbis, books written by the rabbis and other leaders of the Congregation, books published by KI, year books, bulletins, charters, memorabilia, and birth, conversion, marriage, confirmation, and burial records of KI’s members since the Congregation was founded in 1847. In addition we have begun to add genealogical material of members as well as historical material on Jews in Philadelphia and the United States.
KIPAH contains the minute books of board meetings from the beginning of the Congregation. For its first forty years the congregation conducted its business in German and all of those records are available in the original handwritten German script. In addition to these holographic records, the archives has a typescript of them in English, translated by Margaret Schonwetter in the 1970s. Other significant documents and materials include the original 1847 constitution of the Congregation, photographs of KI members who fought (and those who died) in the Civil War, Rabbi Joseph Krauskopf’s personal diary from his travels to Russia in 1894, the photograph and relevant material relating to Albert Einstein’s honorary membership in KI, the anti-Zionist correspondence of Rabbi William S. Fineshriber, and information about a KI member who rescued scores of Jewish children from the Holocaust.
Starting in 1974 members of KI began sorting through more than a century’s worth of paper, photographs, and memorabilia. Significant to this project were Blanche Kober, Louis Doull, and Phyllis Drucker Sichel. In 1983 Sylvan W. Drucker, a confirmand and past president of K.I., provided funds to hire Douglas Kohn, a rabbinical student at HUC and an experienced archivist, to help organize and inventory the collection. Kohn also provided professional preservation expertise to the volunteers. During this period, records dating from the mid-nineteenth century to the 1980’s were transferred to acid-free folders and boxes, organized, and cataloged, while leather-bound volumes were professionally preserved. Today, The Archives contains the records of rabbis, officers and auxiliary groups of the congregation, audio and video recordings, and a treasure trove of family records.
Since the 1980’s the K.I. Archives has been used for various historical exhibits, both within the synagogue and in the larger community. Some scholars have also worked on site at KI, using the collections for dissertations, articles, and books. In addition, many individuals have used The Archives for family history and genealogy research. K.I. is one of only two local synagogues with an organized collection containing vital statistics on the life cycles of families and members. Students and scholars studying the history of Reform Judaism have made extensive use of The Archives. Over the years The Archives has loaned memorabilia to museums and Jewish historical societies, including the National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia, the Jewish Museum of New York City and the American Jewish Archives in Cincinnati.
KIPAH takes the KI archives to the next level. In 2015, Rabbi Lance J. Sussman, who is also a historian of American Jewish history, initiated a project to digitize the KI Archives. This project has been headed by Dr. Paul Finkelman, a leading U.S. historian who works in legal history, the history of immigration and ethnicity, and American Jewish history, and his colleague, Amy S. Erickson, a professional educator and website and technology advisor. Working with KI volunteers and Rabbi Sussman, they have begun digitizing the KI Archives collection in order to create an online KI Archives Website. Sussman, Finkelman, and Erickson launched kipah.org (Keneseth Israel Philadelphia Archives & History) in May, 2016, the first online synagogue archives in the world. Kipah.org is now making K.I.’s remarkable history and archived material increasingly accessible to scholars, genealogists and ‘web surfers’ of all stripes and serves as an easily imitated model for similar endeavors for any institution or organization seeking to preserve and share its history in a compelling and user friendly way.
For more information on how to create an online synagogue archives, visit the Huffington Post article, “Online Synagogue Archives: The Future of American Judaism’s Past.”