The Ottawa Jewish Archives and Experiential Learning

This post is brought to you by Leslie Rodriguez, a grade 11 Co-op student placed at the Ottawa Jewish Archives

My name is Leslie Rodriguez and I am a grade 11 student at Bell High school.  Most people my age fall into one of two categories- that is, they either know with some certainty what they want to do in the future, or they have absolutely no idea at all. Thankfully, I have always been one of the former, certain that after high school I would like to study archaeology and history. I have always loved learning about ancient civilizations and been awed by the idea of unearthing history and being able to hold a tangible piece of the past. When I decided to take Co-Op, I wasn’t sure what kind of placement I could possibly get- after all, my career goals were very specific and finding history related placements is difficult. Co-Op is a 2 credit (or more) high school course that allows students to work in a placement related to a field of their choice. This experiential learning opportunity allows them to explore interests, discover new interests, and make decisions about their future. Many students explore placements in the skilled trades, medicine, technology, and arts. So I was pleasantly surprised when my Co-Op teacher managed to get me an interview at a placement at the Ottawa Jewish Archives.            

When I heard about the Ottawa Jewish Archives, I realized that, while I had some knowledge of archives, in general, my knowledge was very vague. I couldn’t describe, with any specificity, the duties of an archivist. To be honest, while I had some basic knowledge of the field, I was unsure that I honestly understood archival work. Following some research, I found that archives are places where historical records are stored. In particular, the Ottawa Jewish Archives (OJA) endeavours to preserve the memory, history, and culture of the Jewish community of Ottawa. An archivist is the person who maintains the archives- meaning they work to preserve the historical records. Even knowing this, I still was unsure what to expect when I started at the OJA.

In February, I began my work at the archives. My first project was to work with photographs. The project involved wearing light white gloves to protect the photographs against the natural oils and any unseen dirt on my hands, then placing each photo into plastic sleeves. Small labels, written on acid-free paper, were placed in the sleeves with the corresponding photos. Next, it was important for photos to be put in folders that were properly labeled with the fonds number, fonds name, and dates. Organization is immensely important for researchers, as it helps researchers find what they are looking for more quickly. I remember being anxious at first, afraid I would damage the photographs or make a mistake. However, working with the photographs was quiet work that I quickly came to enjoy and, following an example Zoe let me use, I was able to figure out the labeling relatively quickly.

Following photographs, I began working on the Akiva High School project. The first task was to read through all of the files in order to familiarize myself with the fonds. Next, I created an intellectual arrangement (the arrangement of the fond as seen on the computer) and the tentative physical arrangement of the fond. Following this, I created a finding aid, complete with everything except the history and bio. Though I had read through hundreds of documents, I knew I still didn’t have enough information about the history of Akiva to actually finish the finding aid. I was missing both the opening and closing date of the institution. I spent hours searching the Ottawa Jewish Bulletin for mentions of Akiva, then for the Ottawa Talmud Torah Board (to which Akiva once belonged). The meticulous research I needed to do for the Akiva collection certainly improved my research skills as I was forced to decide what was necessary and what was unneeded for the history and bio. I have since applied the research skills learned at the OJA to my studies and my personal life. I know these skills are invaluable for the future and for archival work. Finding nothing, I took a break from the Akiva project to do my favourite project of the year: the Duke Abelson display.  

Given the freedom to choose any collection from the archive to display, I chose the Abelson family. At first, I thought I wanted to aim my display at highlighting the entire family- after all, they were all quite accomplished and there was a lot to celebrate about each member. Then, I came across the belongings, articles, and correspondence of Lawrence Balfour “Duke” Abelson, a soldier from World War II. When I came across his belongings, pored over his photographs, and read about his life in articles, files, and correspondence, I knew that I had to tell Duke’s story instead. Using his medals, hat, patches, photographs, and correspondence about him, I did my best to tell the remarkable and tragic story of Duke Abelson. I was very pleased to learn that a relative of Duke Abelson had come in to the archives after seeing the display and had mentioned how much he liked the display. He was immensely pleased to see his brother remembered and had actually donated many of the items himself.

Following the Duke Abelson display, I returned to the Akiva High School project with renewed energy, new leads, and another box. The second box had been previously placed in reference, seperated from Akiva High School. After reading through all the files, I edited the finding aid and added new information from the files to the history and bio. In the second box, I had found the opening date of the school and some historical information. Still, I had no knowledge of the closing date of the school. At my supervisor’s suggestion, I wrote down the names of any still living people who may have knowledge in relation to Akiva. Among them was Hillel Taub, the previous principal of Akiva, whom we managed to contact. He was very helpful and managed to tell us the closing date, the reason for closing, and other information pertinent to Akiva.

After completing the finding aid, I rearranged the physical arrangement of Akiva to make it easier to access for researchers- and because the original boxes were too large to fit in the allotted space. With that task complete, the Akiva project finally came to an end. Having completed the Akiva task, I was assigned to work with photographs again. The work was quiet and enjoyable, however it was not long until Demo Day. Demo Day was a chance- and an evaluation- to demonstrate any knowledge I had learned from Coop. Using the Hans Reiche fonds, I demonstrated the theoretical process of creating a display. Once Demo Day was complete, I realized I would need more projects to complete while Zoe was away in May. I was assigned the Sam and Dora Litwack fond, a fond comprised entirely of scrapbooks. I created a physical and intellectual arrangement, then a finding aid. I managed to find enough information in the scrapbooks and in Sam Litwack’s obituary to create a history and bio. Having completed another project, I was assigned back to photographs.

            Now, I eagerly await whatever tasks come next. I’m excited to continue learning new things and expand my skills at the archives. I hope to continue at the archives during the summer and perhaps on a voluntary basis next year as well. So what are my next steps? Well, since I will be graduating next year, I will be preparing for university and doing my best to learn and experience as much as I can. As my supervisor advised me, I will “try everything” and accept every opportunity. I am unsure what will come next apart from that but it will be an exciting journey.

One thought on “The Ottawa Jewish Archives and Experiential Learning

  1. Leslie, the Duke Abelson display you curated was fascinating and deeply moving. You selected just the right pieces to tell his story. I was most affected by the message of condolence from King George VI on Buckingham Palace stationary. To think that hundreds of thousands of these messages were written, behind each a life as full as Duke Abelson’s. Keep up the good work.


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