Fifty years from now, when the American Jewish community begins to contemplate the 400th anniversary of Jewish settlement on these North American shores, researchers will inevitably compare and contrast the evolving character and content of the historical commemorations that shaped previous milestone occasions. In doing so, they will likely take careful note of one particular phenomenon that distinguished the commemoration of the 350th anniversary (2004-2005) from its two commemorative predecessors, the 250th anniversary (1905) and the so-called tercentenary (1954-1955). The feature that distinguished the commemoration of the 350th from its forerunners was the establishment of a Commission for Commemorating 350 Years of American Jewish History, specifically recognized in a concurrent resolution of the United States Congress honoring the 350th anniversary of American Jewish history.
The Commission for Commemorating 350 Years of American Jewish History (hereafter referred to as the Commission) was comprised of four national research institutions, two Jewish and two sponsored by the United States government: The Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives (AJA), The American Jewish Historical Society (AJHS), the Library of Congress (LC), and the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). Collectively, these four research centers offer the general public access to a significant proportion of the collected records that document the history of American Jewry.
The Commission's beginnings were, in a sense, reflexive. In the fall of 1999, the executive directors of The Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives and the American Jewish Historical Society discussed the fact that the 350th anniversary of Jewish communal settlement was rapidly approaching in 2004-2005. During the course of this informal telephone conversation, it was agreed that the AJA and the AJHS should seek to work collaboratively and apply their considerable resources to promote this milestone event in American Jewish history. (1)
On December 20, 2000, Gary P. Zola, executive director of the AJA and professor of the American Jewish Experience at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati, sent a letter to Dr. James H. Billington, Librarian of Congress. In it, Zola informed Billington that "United States Jewry [would] be commemorating the 350th anniversary of the establishment of Jewish communal life in North America in the year 2004," and that he wanted "to explore the possibility of a special cooperative activity between the Library of Congress, the AJA ... and the American Jewish Historical Society." The letter to the Librarian of Congress did not propose a specific project or activity, but broadly suggested that a collaborative venture might lead to "a national academic convocation ... a special online exhibit--or any number of creative, mutually beneficial activities." (2)
Billington's response to Zola's proposal was encouraging. Agreeing that the 350th anniversary represented a significant historical milestone, the Librarian of Congress expressed his willingness to explore the possibility of having the LC participate in the proposed collaboration. Billington concluded his letter on a hopeful note: "We look forward to working both with the American Jewish Archives and the American Jewish Historical Society on this important commemorative project." Michael Grunberger, head of the Hebraic Section, was appointed to serve as the LC's representative in the initial conversations. (3)
The Librarian of Congress's prompt and affirmative reply motivated Zola to write a similar letter to the Archivist of the United States of America, John W. Carlin. On April 11, 2001, Zola explained the background of the upcoming anniversary to Carlin. He also described his concept of a collaboration of research institutions and mentioned, specifically, the Librarian of Congress's interest in the project. Carlin responded enthusiastically to the proposal. Echoing Billington's sentiments about the significance of the historical milestone, Carlin wrote that NARA "gladly welcomed the opportunity to participate" in a joint activity commemorating the anniversary. Greg Bradsher, senior archivist with the Textual Records Services Division, was asked to represent NARA in the...