January 8, 2018
Often if we don’t make a special effort to remember and tell the stories of individuals and groups within history, their contributions to our shared story can all too easily be forgotten. That is as true for Jewish-Americans as for any other group. And that is why Jerry Klinger founded the Jewish American Society for Historic Preservation. Jerry joined Nick to share some of the amazing stories he has learned of Jewish people throughout the country’s history, as well as to share about projects coming in the future for his organization. This is PreserveCast.
[Nick Redding] Often when we don’t take the time to put up markers and make an effort to talk about the history of individuals or groups of people it can be all too easy for their stories and contributions to society to be forgotten. That’s as true for Jewish Americans as it is for many other groups. And that’s why today’s guest, Jerry Klinger founded the Jewish American Society for Historic Preservation. Jerry and I spoke about the many sites he’s helped to bring into the public eye throughout the country and even the world as well as plans for the future. This is PreserveCast.
From Preservation Maryland Studios in the historic podcast district of Baltimore, this is PreserveCast.
[NR] This is Nick Redding. You’re listening to PreserveCast. We’re joined today by Jerry Klinger who is the founder and CEO of the Jewish American Society for Historic Preservation. Since 1999 the society has worked with organizations, synagogues, churches, historical societies, governments, individuals all across the world to erect interpretive historical markers to illuminate the American Jewish experience. And we’re excited to talk with Jerry today about telling that story and how this movement and this organization got started. But first and foremost thanks for joining us today, Jerry. It’s great to have you with us.
[Jerry Klinger] I appreciate the opportunity to share with you. Sure.
[NR] So why don’t you tell us a little bit about yourself? It’s always interesting to hear about the story of people who get involved in this work. What got you interested not only in Jewish American history but in the idea of preserving that history and the stories associated with it?
[JK] Well, perhaps the best way to put it is to explain some of the background. I was a former yeshiva booker… [laughter] yeshiva student. Pretty bad one as a matter of fact. Now the day that I left the yeshiva the rabbis celebrated because all the test scores went straight up [laughter]. But one of the things in yeshiva that I never was taught – and this is something I ended up doing on my own because I always had an interest in history – was that Jewish history sort of ended at the destruction of the Second Temple and didn’t begin again until the birth of the state of Israel. In other words, there was nothing in the middle. And pretty much, that was my knowledge. I really didn’t know anything. I knew Talmud. I knew to read the Torah. I knew all that sort of stuff. But I was pretty much ignorant of the middle part until I got into this public high school. And I began reading books on my own amongst… which was Max Dimont’s Jews, God, and History and that’s written by a non-Jew and he was talking about our background. And I’m reading that going, “Oh my gosh. I didn’t know.” But how did I get going on the Jewish American Society? I don’t claim to be that intelligent. That I pre-thought this out. It was an accident. I guess a lot of things start off that way too. My wife and I were in Columbia, California. That’s way up in the Sierra Nevadas. It’s a historical mining town. And we were doing the B&B routine and this recreation of the mining environment from [the] 1880s staying in one of the hotels. I think it was called the City Hotel. No television, no radio. Fortunately, they had electric lights. And there was not a lot to be done in that area. You went out and walked in the dark along the boardwalk. And that evening we happened to go out and I saw some light down the street. And I said, “Thank God, there’s civilization.” So we went over there. Turned out to be a bookstore. And we went in and that’s when I discovered a book by Helen Rochlin called Pioneer Jews. You’ve got to remember that for a former yeshiva booker I was complete with the [inaudible Yiddish term] and everything. “Pioneer Jews?” And I’m looking and I’m thinking to myself, “What the hell is a Pioneer Jew? I never heard of it. Never heard of such a thing.” Well, I got the book, read it, and was just totally amazed about the story of American Jewry and how we were a fundamental part of the development and the emergence if you will of the United States from the very beginning. So the following year, again still doing the B&B bit, we are in Santa Fe, New Mexico. And I told the poor, suffering wife that the first permanent Jewish house of worship in the territory of New Mexico was just over yonder. Actually, yonder was about 60 miles away over the mountains. I didn’t tell her that part. I said, “Why don’t we go and see if we can find it in the little town of Las Vegas, New Mexico?” Well, we went out there. We got to, I think it was 7th and Douglas Streets, and I’m standing on the corner. I’m pirouetting and I’m looking around for a synagogue. I didn’t see anything. There was a little white church there. There was Highland University, which is a Catholic school and some houses and no synagogue. So I said, “All right. Probably wrong.” I went into the City Center. Very historic, very interesting place to go visit. Went to the tourist office and I walked up and I said, “Jews.” And they looked at me and they said, “Jews?” I said, “All right. Must’ve gone to the wrong place.” So I went. And we’re back in Santa Fe. I did some research and I found out that little white building, that little white church I was standing in front of that had been the synagogue! I never knew it. And I thought to myself, “Well, maybe if I put a little marker up here that can help other people. Rather than standing in the middle of the street pirouetting and looking for history, they can identify it.” And from there, I was introduced – I went back to the city and I was introduced. His name was Juan Gonzalez. And he told me, “This is what we have and this is what we’re going to do.” And I said, “Can we put up a marker on this church?” And he said, “Let me talk to the Archbishop of New Mexico.” And I’m thinking, “Wow. Really getting up there.” Well, he went and talked to the archbishop and there wasn’t even a debate. He said, “Absolutely.” This archbishop gave us permission to put up a little marker on what had been the former Temple Montefiore in the 1880s – roughly 1920 – saying that this had been the first synagogue in the territory of New Mexico. And then I found out why that was given so readily. Well, when Bishop Lamy was trying to build his great cathedral in Santa Fe he ran out of money. He couldn’t finish it. It turns out that the Jewish community of Santa Fe gave him the money to finish his cathedral. And out of appreciation, if you go to see the great cathedral in Santa Fe these days, you’ll find over the archway is the name of God carved in Hebrew in appreciation for what the Jews did. So here, we’re dealing with almost 100 years later, I came by and I asked for permission just to recognize the site of the first permanent synagogue in the territory of New Mexico and it wasn’t even a debate. The answer was, “Absolutely. Of course.”
[NR] And so really that’s kind of part and parcel of the work that you do. Why don’t you describe for us and for people listening what is it that the Jewish American Society for Historic Preservation does and how has it grown since that first project?
[JK] Well, when I did that first project, I didn’t really have a proper vision. But then, the thought came to me. I said, “I wonder if I can reproduce this somewhere else to tell the story of American Jewry to show the legitimacy of American Jewish contributions to the development of this great country?” And from there, it’s blossomed. I mean, we’ve done projects now in 29 states. I think it’s five or six countries now. We’ve probably got about 7 million people annually who are learning a bit about the American Jewish story. From that one little marker in New Mexico, we just continued moving along. And the opportunities every time I finish something, I’m thinking, “Jeez, I just don’t know where the next opportunity is going to come.” But the opportunities are always there. So in 2018, I already have six projects lined up. Some of them are going to be very, very significant to the story of American Jewry. If you don’t mind, I can share a little bit about some things that are coming up.
[NR] Yeah, I think it would be great for people to hear about some of the projects you’re working on. And also to understand, do you fundraise to do these? All how that works I think will be interesting as well.
[JK] Well, I was working on my Ph.D in American Studies and History at the University of Maryland when I realized that couldn’t make a living. And decided to go into another field that I turned out to be fairly good at it. I became a senior vice-president with Merrill Lynch. So I can provide much of the funding. We do do fundraising. We do. We do get contributions. We are a 501(c)(3) and certainly appreciate every tax-deductible dollar that is sent to us. That is very much appreciated. But what I was trying to share with you, it’s really, what are some of the things that can be done by simply opening your eyes. About two weeks ago we received permission from the executive council of a tiny, tiny island in the Caribbean. The tiny island of St. Eustatius. It was formerly a Dutch island. What we received the permission to do is to put up historic interpretative signage about the Jewish story on that island. Everybody knows about Haym Salomon. They always come up with that bubbameisse about how he saved the American Revolution by loaning all the money for the soldiers and helping Washington get out of the dire straits that he was in by giving them money. Well, that’s sort of a… let’s say, an invented story. The true story of how the Jews saved the American Revolution is centered on this tiny island St. Eustatius. When I say tiny, it’s only two by three. It’s sort of a giant pimple when you see it from the air. It’s a big volcano with not too much in way of beaches. But it looks almost exactly like it did in the 18th century. What was significant about this island: it was Dutch. And during the American Revolutionary period, Dutch were the ones who would deal with the Americans. That meant that they were willing to sell them weaponry, military supplies. And they sold them from this tiny island of St. Eustatius. And who were the primary merchants on this island who were able to act as factors to bring in the weaponry that was being able to be sold to the American Revolutionary forces when nobody would deal with them? The Jews. The Jewish merchants decided they were going to cast their lot with the American Revolutionary experience. Well, because they cast their lost with the American Revolutionary effort, this tiny island became a horrible thorn in the side of the side of the British Empire. In 1781, they sent a battle fleet there. Fourteen ships had aligned. Three thousand men to attack this tiny island. And Fort Oranje was the defense. Fort Oranje had about 45 men and about three cannons. So I’m sure you understood. It wasn’t much of a debate. When Admiral Rodney came ashore, his objective was to destroy all the military supplies that were just packed along the island’s beaches. And all of that was going to be going to the American forces. Well, he destroyed all the military supplies. But what he found was Jews. He made a special effort immediately to round them up, strip every coin that they would have. He ripped the clothes from their bodies, he deported the men, impoverished everybody because these Jews were helping the American Revolution and he hated them for that. But then he learned something else. In those days, the admiral, the generals, you’re allowed to a certain percentage of every bit of loot that you could get. Now Rodney’s orders were to follow the French fleet, keep an eye on them. But after he started robbing the Jews and realized how much money he could get he said, “Maybe I’ll hang around here a little bit longer.” He hung around for months. And every ship that came in he robbed and stole from them because he saw that you can get away with it and became very rich. In the process, he made a fundamental mistake. The French fleet escaped and for a tantalizing three to four month period, that French fleet went north and joined with another, smaller French fleet opposite the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay. When Rodney finally realized what he had done, he sent a relief fleet up there to try and stop them. Because who was along the Chesapeake at a little town called Yorktown, Virginia, trapped? General Cornwallis. He was looking for help from the sea, from the British Navy. When the British Navy finally came up to that area, the French Navy defeated them. The French were the most powerful navy in the North Atlantic for that tiny little period of time. And because Rodney had kept his fleet down in the south so he could steal and rob, the American Revolution became a guarantee victory for the American side. Because the French closed off sea approaches as far as Cornwallis was concerned. The American Army was on the land. The war was over. All because one man hated the Jews so much for selling weaponry from this silly little island to the American forces. And we were just given permission – we’re working on the historic markers and texts – to tell that story right now.
[NR] And so how do most of these projects come about? Do you look for the projects around the nation and around the world? Or do you have a process for people to apply to see if they can get signage or interpretation at their project, at their site?
[JK] Both. First of all, we’re always researching. Two, we’re always looking for suggestions and for recommendations. And we’re always hoping that people will reach out to us and say, “Here’s an opportunity. Here’s a possibility.” And that’s what we do.
[NR] And let me ask you when it comes to the idea of historic preservation, obviously a lot of your work has to do with signage, and interpretation, and telling the stories, which is a really important part of this. Have you ever gotten involved or do you have any plans of getting involved in actually rehabilitating or restoring a historic site itself?
[JK] We’ve thought about that. We’ve been approached by a number of places, especially out west where you have synagogues that have fallen into decay and people would like to preserve them. But for us and for our size of a historic society, we’ve found that it’s not as efficient for us to do that. Now I mean some projects that we can get involved in can run into six-figure numbers, that’s true. We just did The Exodus project, which is tied intimately to the story of Maryland. And that ran me six figures easily.
[NR] And why don’t you explain that project? What was that one?
[JK] Well, everybody knows the story of the Exodus because everybody saw the movie. The Leon Uris book and then, of course, the movie by Otto Preminger. The problem with that is that that wasn’t the story. That wasn’t the true story of The Exodus. The Exodus was actually a Maryland – if you will – cruise ship. She used to be known as “the honeymoon cruise.” She would go from Baltimore down to Norfolk and just take people up and down – since the 1920s – in luxury. But in World War II they needed ships. And the ship was called the President Warfield at the time. Went across, and participated in the D-Day invasions, was a support ship and then was returned back to the States where she languished in the Norfolk surplus yards. She was pretty badly beaten up at that point. Wasn’t really very much of this luxury ship. And she had been designed to carry about 600 people initially. Well, we’re dealing now with 1946/1947. The Jews are trapped in Europe. The remnants of the surviving – from the camps, from the Holocaust – nobody wanted them. They had nowhere to go except for one little place that had been promised them by the British. This little area called Mandate Palestine. Except the British still, even after the horrors of the Holocaust, would not open up to the remnants of Europe to go and settle in possibly some place that they would have a life again. The only way to get them there was to smuggle people in illegally. The effort to smuggle Jews in was called the Aliyah Bet, the second effort to go up. And these were mainly ten American ships – which The Exodus was the most well-known – out of Baltimore that was sent over to Europe after being refitted. They put the refugees on board and then try and run the British blockade. The Exodus was named that but only at sea. She was kept very, very secret as far as her name. And then she had been refitted to carry not 600 but 4,500 people and they were squeezed on to this tiny little ship. She had been partially refitted in Baltimore. Everybody in Baltimore knew what was going on – chief-of -police, everybody did. It was an open secret and they kept it quiet because the F.B.I. was looking after everything.
The ship crossed over. They picked up all the people in the Port-de-Bouc and then down to Sète and sailed. And the British were waiting for them. They had a battle fleet up. They were going to stop them. The strategy was different. If anybody has ever sailed on the Chesapeake Bay, you know that the Bay – a good 10 percent of it is about three feet or less – [is] very shallow. So The Exodus’ bottom was round. It wasn’t a V-shaped like a destroyer that would cut through the deep water. The plan was: to cross over to the Sinai side and follow along the coast (skirting along within the coastal waters so that the British couldn’t get to them), make it to the shores of Palestine, let the people off before the British could stop them. And the British knew that too and they said, “We’re not going to let you get there.” In international waters, the British attacked The Exodus about two in the morning on the 18th of July. Two destroyers came up on either side of her and began ramming her, crushing her hull. The Exodus put up quite a fight as best they could. But eventually she had to surrender because that was the reality. It was surrender or die. They chose to surrender and they were brought in to Port of Haifa. British normally would’ve taken them over to some place like Cyprus or some sort of a detention camp outside of Haifa called Atlit. But there was basically the Foreign Secretary. He had prison ships awaiting for them. And here these people had just come from the concentration camps. He sent them back to Hamburg, Germany, and then sent back to the camps. The world was shocked by this thing. It was a horrible situation and they realized how desperate these people were. And the story of The Exodus, which began in Baltimore, changed world public opinion. And eventually would even affect the United Nations into realizing that Palestine under the British mandate should be divided into two states, one would be for the Jews and the other one would be for the Palestinian Arabs. That was the story of The Exodus. This was a public affairs debacle for Britain but it showed to the world the desperation of human refugees were willing to die at the seas just to find a safe place to live.
[NR] And where were you able to interpret and tell that story? Where do you mark that story with signage?
[JK] Well, it always bothered me that there was actually signage or interpretation telling the story of The Exodus in Germany, France, Italy, and Baltimore. I mean you have a very, very nice interpretive exhibit right in the Harbor area. But you had nothing in Israel. And it’s always astonished me that there was nothing there. We ended up placing probably the largest and most significant interpretive memorial to The Exodus in Haifa and we dedicated it last July – July the 18th on the 70th anniversary of the ship’s arrival. We had thousands of people involved. We had politicians, we had the American ambassador, the Canadian ambassador, the British ambassador. They came. This was a story of significance. And had to do all with the birth of Israel and the struggle for human rights and dignity. And you can go there sometime if you’d like. It’s inside of the harbor, it’s still within the security zone, so preferably if you’re taking a ship. But we’re estimating there should be 700 to 750,000 people a year will now see this memorial to The Exodus in Haifa Harbor and understand the relationship behind this little Maryland ship and the birth of the state.
[NR] Well, I think that’s a great place for us to take a quick break and then maybe come back and talk a little bit more about your work and the future of the society and where things are headed and we’ll do that right here on PreserveCast.
Maryland Mini America
[Stephen Israel] Cold! If you are listening to PreserveCast from practically anywhere in the continental United States then you, like me, have spent the last week trying desperately to avoid frostbite. And one of my personal favorite ways to do that is to wrap myself up in a toasty, wool blanket. Wool we’re on the subject, did you know that Maryland hosts the largest and longest running Sheep and Wool Festival in the United States? It’s a Maryland tradition that teaches us about heritage, breed conservation, historic spinning and weaving and it takes place every May in Howard County, Maryland. The Maryland Sheep Breeders Association will host it’s 45th annual Sheep and Wool Festival this May on the Howard County Fairgrounds. Founded in 1974, it began as the Sheep and Wool Crafts Festival aimed to educate the public and school-aged children about sheep and related crafts and cultures. Early organizers hoped the festival would provide entertainment to the community as well as raise money for the Sheep Breeder’s Association. So you might be able to tell from its long run, the Maryland Sheep and Wool Festival continues to provide education and entertainment. Edu-tainment as I like to call it. And [it’s] responsible for the conservation of heritage breeds that allows to see the way animals looked in the days of our ancestors before industrialized farming. Their Youth Conservationist Program pairs younger shepherds with an experienced breeder who donates a yearling ewe for their sponsee to raise, promote at festivals, and use to start their own heritage breed flocks. These days the event brings together up to 70,000 visitors over its two-day period. And it’s programming has grown as well. From spinning, weaving, and shearing demonstrations in the early years… to today when there are woven and knitted garment shows, shearing competitions, and various workshops and even sheepdog demonstrations. Anyway, even if it’s synthetic make sure you wear a coat when you go outside today. And don’t leave any skin exposed for 30 minutes. And get back to PreserveCast.
Do you have questions? We may have answers. If at any point during this podcast you thought of a question that you have for us or maybe one of our guests, we’d love to hear about it. You can send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll try and answer it right here on the air, on the next episode of PreserveCast.
[NR] This is Nick Redding. You’re listening to PreserveCast. We’re joined today by Jerry Klinger, the founder and CEO of the Jewish American Society for Historic Preservation. And we’ve heard some really fantastic stories about not only the history, but the places that the Society has been working in to tell the story of the Jewish American people. Jerry, you’ve talked about how this organization got off the ground, the projects that you’ve worked in, some really fantastic stories that you have been able to not only uncover, but also interpret. Where does the Society go? Where is the future of the Society in the coming years? Not in the specific projects but in the type of work that you intend on doing? Are you going to stay true to the interpretive mission? Do you expand on expanding the scope at all? Where are you headed?
[JK] Well, probably stay within the interpretive mission as we’ve been doing. It could be signage. It could be individual projects, memorials, monuments, things like that. People have always asked me… they’ve said, “Please write a book.” Because there’s always stories to be told. And I said, “I’ll get around to it one of these days.” I’ve written about 100 articles that are out there right now. Everything from the Jewish Daily Forward to some of the papers to magazines. Probably somebody that Googles me, they’ll probably find the stuff. But the opportunities to tell about the American experience actually have political implications that are beyond anything that people realize. We were just given permission from the City of Salina, Kansas, to put up a simple historical interpretive marker. When I say a marker… try and picture these big roadside type of things that you drive by at 60 miles an hour and everybody says, “What in the world is that?” But this is going to be outside of one of the main museums in the City of Salina and it’s going to be for a man named August Bondi. Probably nobody ever heard of him. But August Bondi is very, very important for Jewish American identity.
There are some people out there who accused Jews of… maliciously saying that we were responsible for slavery. We were responsible for all kinds of evil things that are going on that have happened during the terrible Black experience during the slave era. Well, August Bondi was a Jewish immigrant from Hungary and he settled in Kansas during the period of the Kansas-Nebraska Struggle. And when they were trying to decide if they were going to be slave state or free state. August Bondi rode with John Brown to free the slaves. He had an underground railway station at his home and eventually that was burned. And he fought in the Civil War to free Kansas and keep Kansas free of all of this horrible surge of slavery. And not too many people knew the story. But he was from Salina and that’s where he spent his life, became a Justice of the Peace. He became postmaster. He was a very high ranking Mason. And he’s buried there. And they were willing to let me put up a marker to share with everybody with pride about a native son of Kansas.
[NR] And how many of these kinds of projects would you say that you’ve done around the… in the course of the organization’s history?
[JK] Oh, we’ve done scores and scores and scores of them. But the opportunity is always there. I can think… if somebody had to say to me real quickly, somewhere right now, I guess around 60 to 70 of them have been done already. We have probably another dozen already in the mill that are going to be coming up.
[NR] So it’s a big job. And if people want to learn more about the Society, where can they find more of that information about you and also the Society itself?
[JK] Well, they can simply go to the website which is the acronym for the Jewish American Society for Historic Preservation. J-A-S-H-P.org and just take a look. Send me an e-mail. Send me a suggestion. We will respond to everything.
[NR] I was going to ask but if someone has a significant Jewish story in their community and that isn’t being interpreted and isn’t being told, they should get in touch with you.
[JK] Absolutely. I mean, the stories are everywhere and we keep on discovering them. A project that I would like to do that at the moment is still being held up… there’s two of them out in California. We participated in every branch of the American story you can think of. Because to be American was something special and Jews wanted to be that.
[NR] Well, this has been fantastic. And before we let you go, we love to ask our guest about their personally, their favorite historic building or place. And I know you’ve been all around the world and probably have a lot of great ones to choose from. But if you had to narrow it down to one, what would it be?
[JK] As you’re saying, it’s pretty hard. Because every time I do one then I suddenly get a favorite because I’m excited about something else. Well, let me give you one right now. About a year and a half ago I was instrumental in providing funding for the creating of a Holocaust Memorial in Suriname, so the old Dutch Guyana. [A] little country right off the coast of northern South America. They have one of the most incredible Jewish synagogues you can ever imagine in the Caribbean world, it’s right there. Yes, with the sand floors. But the building is magnificent.
Unfortunately, the Jewish community is pretty much not there. Much of the young future of the Surinamese Jews were trapped in Europe when Hitler came to power and many of them were killed. So the community is very, very small. And I worked with some of the local people there. I worked with Jacob Steinberg out in Canada. And we place the first-ever memorial, a Holocaust Memorial, right on their grounds to these people. The story of Jews in Suriname goes back hundreds and hundreds of years. And it tells us we were part of this world from the start. And we hope to be part of this world for many centuries to come yet.
[NR] Yeah. And I think that’s a fantastic way to put it. And a fantastic capstone to put on this interview in talking about the work that you’re doing to highlight and show that the Jewish people were here and were an exceptionally important and remain an exceptionally important, part of our story. So thank you for joining us today and thanks for the good work that you’re doing. We look forward to staying connected and as we uncover important stories here, we’ll be sure to be in touch. Thank’s so much, Jerry.
[JK] Be well. Thank you.
This podcast was developed under a grant from the National Center for Preservation Technology and Training, a unit of the National Park Service. Its contents are the sole responsibility of Preservation Maryland and the Maryland Milestones Heritage Area and do not necessarily represent the official position or policies of the National Park Service or the National Center for Preservation Technology and Training.
This week’s episode was produced and engineered by Ben and Stephen Israel. Our executive producer is Aaron Marcavitch. Our theme music is performed by the band Pretty Gritty. You can learn more about them at their website: PrettyGrittyMusic.com, on Facebook, or on Twitter @PG_PrettyGritty.
To learn about Preservation Maryland or this week’s guests, visit: PreservationMaryland.org. While there, you can check out our blog and learn about what’s current in historic preservation. We’re also on Facebook, Instagram, Flickr, and Twitter @PreservationMD. And of course, a very special thank you to our listeners. Keep preserving!