Enriching Jewish Education: The Legacy of Akiva High School

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

As a grade 11 student at Bell High School, I never really thought that I would be able to work at an archives in the near future. Working at an archives requires an immense amount of training and education and, even though I aspire to study history and archaeology, I thought it would be years before I would ever come close to working with old files, photographs, or items. In February, I began my Cooperative Education placement at the Ottawa Jewish Archives in order to learn more about the duties of an archivist. Although I was given many different smaller tasks, my largest project by far has been working on the Akiva High School fonds. Through this project, I’ve gained a lot of insight into the work of an archivist and the painstaking process of cataloging a single fond. I’ve also had the chance to handle many different items of varying ages, work with old photographs, and pore over old files.

A Brief History of Akiva High School

Akiva High School is an important part of the educational history of the Jewish community in Ottawa. The school first opened its doors in July of 1979 as a part of the Ottawa Talmud Torah Board (OTTB) of Jewish education, under the name Ottawa Talmud Torah Evening High School. At the time, Akiva HS was closely related to the Ottawa Talmud Torah Afternoon school, which provided classes for students prior to the eighth grade. In July of 1981, the school adopted a new name: Akiva Evening High School. In 1994, Akiva separated from the OTTB and became an independent school. The school faced issues with low enrollment for most of its operating years, which eventually led to its closing. Attempts to join forces with Yitzhak Rabin High School at their location in the early 2000s  proved fruitless and the school was forced forced to close its doors in 2007.

Now the remains of what once was a great educational institution remain only in the archives, divided among two boxes. These boxes were virtually untouched- in fact, one of the boxes had been separated from the other and was only discovered in references recently by the current archivist.

Akiva High School was a lively place, filled with laughter, learning, and community. The school had a variety of courses, including credited and interest courses. From Hebrew, to cooking, to Hasidic Literature, to Holocaust studies, Jewish youth of Ottawa had quite the selection of accredited courses to explore. In addition, students who couldn’t afford the full tuition could receive subsidies so they would be able to attend. The school held numerous events, often in cooperation with the Ottawa Talmud Torah Afternoon School (OTTAS). The students also held numerous events at Hillel Lodge, a long term care facility in Ottawa.

Akiva was also known for its staff and guests. Staff included Dr. Gerry Cammy, who taught “Hey What’s Happening?”, a course about current events and Jewish youth, a professor of many years and a known radio host of a talk show on CFRA. The staff also included Leah Kalin, a beloved Yiddish teacher and holocaust survivor. The legendary Dora Wasserman even performed at Akiva once. The excellent staff served to provide an enriched education to the Jewish youth of Ottawa.

The Akiva Evening High School graduating class of 1993
Akiva students in the 1990s

The Starting Point
When I first began the Akiva project, it seemed inconceivable that I would ever finish it. There were hundreds of photographs and an endless pile of files, and many unreadable CD-ROMs. The first step was to read through every file, to peruse every photo, and to learn as much as I could glean from the files. Then, I moved on to the photographs. Photographs can be damaged by exposure to one’s bare hands due to dirt and natural oils found on our fingers, which can cause photos to become discoloured and deteriorate. For this reason, I wore light white gloves when I worked, and my task was to put the photographs into plastic sleeves. At first, I focused on getting them into sleeves before they could become more damaged- after all, some of them had previously been in some sort of scrapbook, and the adhesive from those photographs damaged the others as it caused them to stick together. It took time and patience to get those photos to separate. After I had them into sleeves, I worked on organizing them based on context- graduation photographs, community and events photos, student life, and courses and band photos.

Intellectual and Physical Arrangements

Next, I began to create an intellectual arrangement. The intellectual arrangement is the one that goes into the computer system, DB textworks, and is used to organize the fond into smaller categories. The overreaching fond, Akiva High School, was divided into several series, including financial, administrative, photographs, students and registration, and a few others. Then, I rearranged the physical arrangement of the files to follow the series. From there, I was able to create fond level, series level, and even file level descriptions. Item level descriptions were deemed not necessary.

Thinking Outside the Box

At this point, I began to think outside the box- literally. I spent hours combing through every single mention of Akiva High School in the Ottawa Jewish Bulletin, often turning up nothing more than a passing mention or an ad. Eventually I found an article that mentioned that Akiva was the new name of the Ottawa Talmud Torah Evening School, though the top part had been mysteriously cut out so more information was not available. The physical copy of the article was also, oddly enough, missing the top part. I used this information to look into every mention of “Talmud Torah” prior to 1981, hoping that articles discussing the board would lead me to the foundation of Akiva.

Unfortunately, I never found a mention of the founding of Akiva in the bulletin. Instead, I found information about classes and schools for youth, the board, and classes that were offered for older students and adults (but were not part of a school). From here, I looked through the old Talmud Torah Board meeting minutes, beginning in the 1940s. I found interesting mentions of classes for older students, however many people debated whether or not it was the responsibility of the OTTB to provide this education. I knew I needed more information before I would even be able to start writing the history and bio section of my finding aid.

After a brief break to prepare the Duke Abelson display, I delved into the second box of Akiva High School files. These files hadn’t been grouped with the rest of the Akiva files, but had remained separate, in the reference section. I began to organize the files into the different series I had created while working on the first box. I soon realized that they were organized by date and, since some of the dates overlapped with those of the files from Box 1, the entire physical arrangement would likely need reorganization. For me, this meant I had to basically completely redo the physical arrangement, in order to be able to fit everything properly into two boxes.

For me, the next step was to put the files in an order that made sense, that told the story I wanted to tell about Akiva. So, in box 1, I put administrative files, financial files, files with registration information, and, finally, the graduation file. Box 1 therefore contained the information the board members, the teachers, and the staff would see mostly, plus registration information. In box 2, I put files on courses and band, publications and press (for example, a student handbook), and photographs, followed by CD ROMs. I felt this showed more of the communities involvement in the school, particularly in the photographs. The CD ROMs were placed in box 2 due to space constraints in box 1.

After this, I edited the finding aid. I added in the physical locations of the boxes, rearranged the order of some of the files, and edited descriptions if necessary.  All that was left was the history and bio… and I was completely stumped about how I was going to finish it.

The Final Chapter

Even though I had been working on the project for over a month, and even though I had looked through hundreds of documents and articles in the Ottawa Jewish Bulletin, I still lacked the answer to one of my biggest questions: When and why did Akiva Evening High School close down? Strangely, there was no direct mention of the closing to be found in the bulletin, none of the documents mention it, yet all documentation of the school stops in 2007. I needed concrete evidence that the school actually was closed in 2007 before I could add that to my finding aid, so the OJA archivist suggested I write down the names of those who were involved with the school (but are still alive) and she said she could contact them. There were many people involved with Akiva over the years, from teachers, to students, to board members. So I knew I definitely needed to focus on who would be the best person to ask. The archivist managed to contact just that person: Hillel Taub, Akiva’s former principal. He was more than happy to share information about Akiva and was an invaluable resource, without whom I would still remain in suspense about Akiva’s closing. Finding Akiva’s closing date brought my search to a close as well. I had finally completed all the research I needed for the history and bio, had finally found the answers I was looking for, and had finally completed the finding aid. And with that, the final chapter in my search for Akiva’s history came to an end.

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