The Jewish ‘Library of Congress’ Bounces Back From Debt, Then Advances Campaign
Source: The Forward, 2-2-11 — 2-11-11
Facing a looming deadline to pay off $30 million in tax-exempt bonds, the Center for Jewish History has raised every dollar needed to settle its outstanding debt, the organization’s leadership announced on January 24. It is no small accomplishment for any not-for-profit in the current economic climate, particularly for one that, in recent years, has dealt with management woes and struggled to avoid a merger.
“We feel secure that we’ve gotten our message out to a substantial number of people,” Bruce Slovin, the center’s founder and chairman, said in an interview. “We’re going to embark on new projects and can work on the substance of the center.”
The center is a consortium of five organizations: the American Jewish Historical Society, the American Sephardi Federation, the Leo Baeck Institute, Yeshiva University Museum, and the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research. Its campus, near Manhattan’s Union Square, opened in 2000.
With 150,000 square feet of on-site archive space, and another 10,000 square feet off-site, some 100 million individual documents and artifacts, and 500,000 volumes in its library, the center, which bills itself as the Jewish version of the Library of Congress, is the largest Jewish historical collection outside Israel.
But it has also had vocal critics, including the prominent American Jewish historian and Forward columnist Jonathan Sarna. Yet, Sarna said that the success of the center’s fundraising campaign has changed his perspective.
For many years, Sarna, a professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University and a member of the AJHS’s academic council, argued that building the institution was a mistake. “The money, I said then, should have gone into scanning the documents [owned by the respective consortium members] rather than creating bricks and mortar as a memorial to the donors,” he said. “Now that it’s financially viable, it’s perfectly clear that it has found a place. One goes there and sees a variety of scholars and interested New Yorkers doing research.”
Sarna called the center “unquestionably the most important Jewish archive in the country and one of the most important in the world.”
Before raising the $30 million, which took 15 months, the center faced a debilitating financial burden. Terms for renewing its letter of credit were poor, and paying the required principal and interest on the existing credit line necessitated taking $1.5 million from its endowment each year. All this interfered with the center’s ability to raise operating funds — funds that otherwise might go toward creating new public programs and making archival materials available online….READ MORE