Monday, August 22, 2011

An Interactive Internship

This summer, I had the privilege to intern at the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington. I hope to one day work in a Jewish museum, and have served as an intern at the Jewish Museum of Milwaukee and as a volunteer docent at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. As a museum studies student with many interests, what attracted me most to the Society was the opportunity to work on a wide range of projects instead of being restricted to one department as is often the case at larger institutions. Some of my projects included:
  • Developing a cumulative timeline of local Jewish history
  • Adding new sections to an online exhibit
  • Helping set up and take down traveling exhibits
  • Leading tours of the historic Adas Israel synagogue
  • Assisting with public programs and special events
  • Collecting content for an informational fundraising packet
My experiences at JHSGW showed me how small museums meet the challenges that larger museums may never need to worry about. I was thoroughly impressed by the creativity staff members used to collect, preserve, and share local Jewish history to the public. The staff invited me to share my input and become part of the program-building team. I even got to go on staff field trips to visit the Jewish Museum of Maryland and the German-American Heritage Museum, where we shared ideas and experiences with our colleagues. This hands-on approach enabled me to apply what I learned in my scriptwriting, marketing, fundraising, and history classes to real-life situations and tasks in the museum. I really enjoyed being able to work with every member of the JHSGW staff at some point over the course of the summer, whether it was assembling mailings, brainstorming new organizational logos, or leading a tour. 

My favorite undertaking this summer was leading tours of the 1876 Adas Israel Synagogue because I loved interacting with the visitors. The tours gave me the opportunity to share what I had learned about local Jewish Washington with the visitors. I loved the connections that I could draw between national and local history. I loved the discussions and dialogues that often began between the visitors and the museum staff, enabling both audiences to actively participate. More than anything, I loved the wide-open eyes and grins of amazement that the visitors made when I told them that the synagogue had moved three blocks on wheels, and would be moving again. The visitors asked all sorts of great questions, and I had a lot of fun answering them or in some cases throwing the questions back to the audience for ongoing discussion.

I am not ready to leave this internship, but alas my time is up. I plan to continue as a volunteer tour guide for both synagogue and walking tours in the fall, and I look forward to seeing what the Society does next!

Samantha Bass is a second-year Master’s student at The George Washington University, where she studies exhibit development, museum administration, and history.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Object of the Month: August 2011

Archives Record
Object #: 2010.25.4
Donor: Steven Blacher
Description: Photograph of Jake Flax holding a lasso while seated on a horse on location at Republic Pictures during a Variety Club convention in Hollywood. His sister Gertrude (woman on the right) watches in the background. c. 1950

Background: By 1913, brothers Sam (aged 26) and Jake Flax (aged 19) were both working as film distributors. Distributors, who found potential movie exhibitors in their local market, generally worked from buildings called film exchanges, which were owned by studios. Film exchanges stored films and often contained screening rooms.

In 1920, the Flax brothers joined together to own and operate Liberty Film Exchange. When Liberty’s parent company unified its distributors, the Flaxes’ office became Republic Pictures Corporation of Washington, D.C. Republic Pictures was one of the first major independent movie studios. It was known for Westerns, launching the careers of cowboy icons John Wayne, Gene Autry, and Roy Rodgers. The Flaxes’ office was the first of 39 Republic exchanges to operate under the new company.

The Washington Post reported that a crowd in excess of 600 including “practically all of the ‘show people’ in the Washington territory” attended the seven-hour housewarming at Republic Pictures’ new building at 925 New Jersey Avenue, NW, on May 20, 1935. Congratulatory telegrams, letters, and flowers arrived from across the country. When Sam died five years later, Jake continued with the business. Jake was also very active in the Variety Club, an organization of people in the entertainment industry that raised money for charities. Around the time of this photo, Jake was president of the local chapter, Tent No. 11. In 1947, he sold his Republic Pictures franchise but served as a branch manager until retiring in 1958. He passed away about a year later.

The Flax brothers were far from the only Washington-area Jews in the movie business. Because Jews were often shut out of traditional white-collar jobs, they were drawn to the opportunities offered by a new, high-risk enterprise in which they could be independent decision-makers. Aaron and Julius Brylawski, Max Burka, Fred Kogod, and Sidney Lust were among the local Jewish theater owners of the era.

Do you have material documenting local Jewish-owned entertainment industry that you’d like to donate to the Jewish Historical Society’s collection? Please contact us at or (202) 789-0900.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Learning the Trade

Working as archival intern at the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington this summer proved both great fun and valuable professional experience. I very much enjoyed pouring over photographs, papers, and scrapbooks in the collections I helped process. Along the way, I learned much about the development of businesses, community institutions, and even families I know today, with walks around my adopted city enriched by the many images of Washington’s past I’ve seen in JHSGW’s collection. Considering that there have always been integral ties between the Jewish and larger communities in the District and beyond, JHSGW’s archival collection reveals much about the broader history of greater Washington as it addresses its core narrative of local Jewish history.

In addition to participation in a range of public and behind-the-scenes activities at JHSGW, my primary responsibilities involved the “processing”, or preparing for accessibility to researchers, of several archival collections. Although I’ve benefitted from some relevant coursework and contributed to a manuscript conservation project in the past, my previous experience with the (I think) fascinating business of arranging and describing archival collections was mostly limited to hypotheticals. This internship offered more active participation, with much of my summer devoted to scanning and cataloging photographs comprising the Naomi and Nehemiah Cohen Foundation collection; arranging and rehousing the Tifereth Israel collection; and arranging, cataloging, rehousing, and drafting both a finding aid and an Object of the Month entry for the Robert Rosenfeld Collection.

Working with the
Jewish Community Center records
Cataloging the Rosenfeld Collection also afforded an opportunity to experiment with JHSGW’s database software to express more nuanced relationships between items within larger collections, which could eventually benefit online searchers. I look forward to continuing the arrangement of the Jewish Community Center of Greater Washington Collection as I volunteer in the coming weeks.

Shelly Buring is a second-year Master’s student at the George Washington University, where she studies museum collections management and history.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Want to intern?

Want to gain some valuable experience while learning about D.C.-area Jewish history and contributing to a small organization?

JHSGW is looking for some interns for this fall. Read about the experiences our former interns Stacey, Sam, and Shelly had.

Interns work in a variety of activities, including (but not limited to):

1. Archives/collections management
2. Research
3. Education/Programs
4. Outreach/Marketing/Membership
5. Publications
6. Website/Exhibitions

Interested? To apply, please send the internship application, along with your resume, a cover letter detailing your interest in this internship and how it fits your goals, and a writing sample to: David McKenzie, Interpretive Programs Manager ( by September 1.

The internship is unpaid. Number of hours per week is flexible; schedule will be during normal business hours (9-5 Monday-Thursday).

Any questions? Contact David McKenzie at or (202) 789-0900.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Remembering Harry Kramer

I first met Harry Kramer when I interviewed him in 2000 for a video we created to accompany our exhibition on Jewish Teen Life in Washington. A soft-spoken and gentle man, Mr. Kramer spoke movingly about his experiences in the Jewish Lions Club, beginning in the 1930s. He also told me about the banner created by the Club during World War II; as each member entered the service, a white star was sewn onto the banner with the member’s name embroidered on it. All of the Lions Club members who served during the War returned safely home after the war, and they’ve been meeting and holding reunions ever since. The banner hung in our Teen Life exhibition, and we borrowed it again in 2005-2006 to display in our Jewish Washington exhibition at the National Building Museum.
Last year, Mr. Kramer and the Jewish Lions Club formally donated the banner to us to preserve in our archives. We spent a few hours together one day in September, recording the World War II memories of Mr. Kramer and other Club members Dave Gordin, Lou Kornhauser, Sol Gnatt, (seen from left to right; Harry Kramer second from right). Then Mr. Kramer and I carefully packed away the banner in an archival box in acid-free tissue.
When I learned today of Mr. Kramer’s recent death, I was so grateful that we had the chance to know him a bit, and that we are able to care for and preserve the physical artifacts that testify to his and others’ places in our community’s history.