(3) Plans for the Future

The summer has gone by faster than I could have imagined back in May when I began working at the Capital Jewish Museum. And the internship itself has evolved over time from the plans at my first meeting with my supervisor, to the description I wrote when I applied for the WOW fellowship, to what I actually ended up working on over the summer. 

When my supervisor and I first spoke, we found that we shared an interest in cemeteries – he regularly walks through D.C. cemeteries, searching for familiar names. As we discussed potential projects for the summer, two cemetery-related projects came up: photographing and creating complete indexes of graves in D.C.’s historic Jewish cemeteries and creating online walking tours of these cemeteries similar to the tours available at the Congressional Cemetery in D.C. As of now, I have fully photographed two of the four historic cemeteries located in southeast D.C. and am working on completing the indexes. Once those indexes are complete, my supervisor, whose knowledge of D.C. Jewish history is much more advanced, will go through and flag individuals or families to be included in the walking tours. The plan is to create multiple tours – for example, the Congressional Cemetery’s various tours include “Brewers,” “Cenotaphs,” “Civil Rights Heroes,” and “Men of Adventure.” Some possible examples for the Jewish cemeteries might be “Clergy,” or “Business Owners.” This project is more long-term than we may have expected, which means my internship will be extended through the fall semester. 

It can sometimes feel like the work I am doing is insufficient – a minuscule change that does little in the larger scheme of things. I have often been asked, regarding my cemetery project, how long would it take to do this sort of project in every Jewish cemetery in the United States? More time than I have. But the work I am doing still makes a difference. It will help the synagogues when people reach out asking for photos or information; it will help the museum with future cemetery-related projects; and it will help many unknown researchers searching for information online about their families whose roots can be found in a plot in southeast D.C. 

When I applied to the WOW fellowship, I mentioned that I hoped to use this incredible opportunity to explore my grandfather’s D.C. family history. As part of the cemetery project, I was able to index the entire cemetery where my great-great grandparents and three of their children are buried. Doing so was a way for me to honor them and their community, making sure their memories are preserved. It similarly helps me serve as a resource to others hoping to honor their families’ histories. 

In this way, my work this summer has helped me become more certain about what I would like to do in the future. No matter what field I end up with, whether I am working in genealogy, a museum, or something else altogether, I hope my work will be of help to others – I enjoy the feeling of being of service, knowing that what I do is affecting others’ lives in a positive way. It has been inspiring to meet so many people this summer who are similarly inspired and who devote their time to historical preservation. 

(2) Working in Cemeteries in D.C. and Poland

The recently partially-restored Jewish cemetery in Tarnow, Poland

Cemeteries can be very introspective places. They are often very quiet; separated from the outside world, with birds chirping and only the occasional sound of cars driving by or muted conversations. Cemeteries are also full of symbolism and emotion; family histories that cover decades and multiple generations. With every grave photographed and documented, I, along with others doing similar work, am able to preserve a bit of that history. 

The eight fellows along with our group leaders from JewishGen, Friends of Jewish Heritage in Poland, and The Matzevah Foundation, standing inside the cleared section of the Przysucha Jewish Cemetery beside the oldest standing matzevah in the cemetery, which is from 1771.

In a brief pause from my internship, two weeks ago I flew to Warsaw, Poland, as part of a fellowship of 8 participants at various points in our academic and professional careers. The fellowship, a collaboration between JewishGen, Friends of Jewish Heritage in Poland, and The Matzevah Foundation, was an opportunity to learn about the long history of Jewish communities in Poland and to explore current efforts to preserve said communities’ stories. A central focus of the fellowship was the role of Jewish cemeteries in Poland as essential proof of the existence of Jewish life in areas now lacking any Jewish presence. As a climax of the trip, our group was joined by additional volunteers from The Matzevah Foundation to clean up a 250-year-old cemetery in Przysucha, Poland.

The gate to the Jewish cemetery in Przysucha, Poland. Most of the fence was not visible from a distance, with a similar level of plant life having grown on the outside perimeter as within the gate.

When we first arrived at the cemetery, it seemed like an impossible job. The area was so overgrown that it looked like a fenced-in forest, and we had little-to-no expectations of finding any matzevot (gravestones). Yet, the more we chopped and dragged, the more we uncovered. Inside the entrance to the cemetery was the first surprise, a pile of matzevah fragments; broken pieces of gravestones. Some had writing on them or showed imagery such as candlesticks or lions (often used on the graves of people whose names translate to “lion” in English, including Arye or Leyb).  As we continued into the cemetery, we found several fully-preserved stones, a small insight into what the cemetery may have looked like in its prime before the war. 

Before this trip, I had an idea in my head of what a cemetery was. Even cemeteries in the US that are less cared-for have a certain look to them: rows and rows of stones, sometimes shoved together with little space in between; sometimes so worn by weather for so many years that they are unreadable, but still there as proof of what has been. The Przysucha cemetery once looked like that, but now there is little left, and what remains is a selection of puzzles with the pieces missing, most likely never to be recovered. Having experienced what can become of such a cemetery, once full of beautifully carved matzevot, the work I am doing to document graves in historic cemeteries in Washington D.C. feels all the more inspiring. As I return to my internship at the Capital Jewish Museum, I am renewed in my enthusiasm to preserve not only Jewish history abroad but also here at home. 

The fact that I was able to attend this fellowship says everything to me about the work environment at my internship this summer. During my very first interview for the position, I mentioned to my now-supervisor that I had applied for this fellowship (at the time I had not yet been accepted). His response: That sounds like a wonderful opportunity! He explained to me that not only did he think it was an excellent program, but that the museum values additional learning opportunities, and he encouraged me to take time away not only for the fellowship, but also for speakers, walking tours, or anything else that came up. This intention for learning, which I value greatly, makes a lot of sense in a museum workspace, where so much of the work is around creating a learning environment for others. In many ways, this internship is helping me figure out what kind of work environment I am looking for and what kind of work I would like to be doing. 

(1) Interning at the Capital Jewish Museum

This summer I am interning at the under-construction Lillian and Albert Small Capital Jewish Museum in Washington, D.C. The museum grew out of the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington, which has been operating out of a historic synagogue building since 1975. The museum is set to open next year and will physically incorporate the old synagogue building into its design. The photo on the left below shows the synagogue perched on the corner of 3rd and F Streets in northwest D.C. and the photo on the right is a digital representation of the future museum building. The brick building to the left in the second image is the relocated old synagogue, connected by a walkway to the newly constructed museum. 

My work for the museum this past month has primarily been a combination of genealogical research and cemetery record documentation. The genealogical aspect involves researching and creating family trees of multi-generational families in the D.C. Jewish community. I have also been spending a great deal of time at historic cemeteries in D.C., photographing and creating comprehensive indexes of graves. This is a personal passion of mine, as grave photos can be incredibly valuable for genealogical research, and online grave photos are a resource for people all over the world who are unable to personally visit cemeteries.

The particular cemeteries I have been working with thus far are home to members of some prominent families in D.C. history. One of the goals of my internship is to create a self-guided tour so that visitors can walk through the cemetery, visit particular graves, and access information about deceased individuals and their contributions to the D.C. Jewish community. This project would combine the genealogical research and cemetery photography aspects of my work, offering a resource to those in the area interested in D.C.’s Jewish history.

I entered this internship with the hope to learn more about the D.C. Jewish community, its diversity, and the ways in which the Capital Jewish Museum is positioned to explore and preserve the community’s history and support its future. As a side benefit, the internship offers me the opportunity to delve deeper into my own history, as my grandfather’s family settled in D.C. in the early 20th century. During my first visit to Ohev Sholom Cemetery, a historic cemetery in southeast D.C., I was able to visit my great-great-grandparents’ graves, along with the graves of several of their children, and the grave of the founder of the synagogue, all together in a cemetery whose history covers multiple centuries.