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January 16, 2014 - Image 14

Resource type:
The Detroit Jewish News, 2014-01-16

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The Rest Is


Federation archivist Sharon Alterman
retires, leaving history preserved.

Barbara Lewis I Contributing Writer


reports, statistical and demographic infor-
mation, oral histories, videos and photo-
graphs — "the items that tell our story:'
Alterman said. "How did we evolve as a
community? What do we do? What are our
mission and our values?"
Alterman, who now lives in West
Bloomfield, grew up in Detroit. She attended
Vernor Elementary and Mumford High
School, and raised her family in Huntington
Shortly after graduating from Wayne
State University with a degree in education,
Alterman started working with youth groups
at the Jewish Community Center at Curtis
and Meyers, including a group for teens and
young adults with developmental disabilities.
She also worked with parents interested in
setting up residential homes for those with
developmental disabilities, which coalesced
into the organization now known as JARC.
Alterman served as its president from 1979
to 1981, and currently heads its house beau-
tification committee. She also has been active
with the Jewish Community Center, Hillel
Day School, Jewish Historical Society of
Michigan and the Melton Adult Mini-School.

Preserving History

Always interested in history, Alterman
earned a master's degree in historic preserva-
tion from Eastern Michigan University and
started getting contracts for preservation and
exhibition projects.
After helping to coordinate the Jewish
Home for Aged's 75th anniversary celebra-
tion in 1982, Alterman was invited to coordi-
nate an exhibit for Federation's 60th anniver-
sary in 1986.
The project highlighted all the Federation
agencies — the Jewish Community Center,
Jewish Family Service, Jewish Vocational
Service, Fresh Air Society, United Hebrew
Schools and more. To her dismay, Alterman
discovered that most of the agencies had
given little attention to preserving their his-
toric documents.
"I saw that our history was, in a sense,
abandoned; she said.
Alterman befriended the facility manag-

ers at each Federation building. "They were
the ones who knew where the history was
stowed;' she said.
She also began working with Charlotte
Dubin, Federation's longtime director of
communications, to organize Federation's
vast photography collection.
Now that she was informally doing archi-
val work, Alterman was excited to learn
about a program at Wayne State, through the
Walter P. Reuther Library, in archival admin-
"After completing the program in 1989, I
somehow convinced the Federation that they
needed an archivist," she said. "The timing
was perfect, as Federation was planning a
move to the suburbs. Bob Aronson (then
Federatioris executive director) has a pas-
sion for history and understood the need to
preserve the materials stored in the Butzel
The rest, she said, pun intended, is history.

Archivist With A Vision
"Nearly 40 years of records and miscel-
laneous treasures filled the dusty basement
of 163 Madison Ave. (Federation's Detroit
address); said Dubin, who describes herself
as a charter member of the Sharon Alterman
Fan Club.
"Along came 'Dust Buster' Sharon to create
order out of chaos and to create the begin-
nings of a Federation collection that would
form the nucleus of something much larger."
After organizing the documents of the
Jewish Federation itself, Alterman started
working to archive Federatioris member
agencies one by one.
It's meticulous work, she said, and each
of the agency collections required "count-
less hours" of survey and arrangement. But
"archiving is not rocket science," she added,
which is why much of the work can be done
by volunteers.
Always a part-time employee, Alterman
credits her volunteers for the mammoth
effort required to archive the collections
of Sinai Hospital, Jewish Home and Aging
Services and the JCC. A three-year project
to archive the Camp Tamarack collection is
almost finished, after which work will start
on JVS.

Sharon Alterman retired

recently as Federation archi-
vist, after a massive organi-

zation of the Jewish commu-
nity's history.

Left: One of Alterman's
favorite artifacts: a 1901
pattern book — with stitches
intact — owned by Hattie
Franklin, wife of Rabbi Leo

Franklin of Temple Beth El.

The Sharon Alterman Fan Club has many
members, including Michael Berke, chair of
Federation's archives committee.
"Sharon was a visionary:' he said. "She
understood the importance of establishing
an archives program and then went about
the task of convincing leadership that this
endeavor should be a priority"
Judith Cantor Levin, a past president of
the Jewish Historical Society of Michigan and
archivist for Congregation Shaarey Zedek
in Southfield, worked with Alterman on a
committee to determine where to house the
community archives.
Only a small amount of material is kept
at Federation's Max M. Fisher Building in
Bloomfield Hills. Most is at the Walter P.
Reuther Library at WSU.
"Sharon has an uncanny knowledge of the
archived collections;' Cantor said. "She could
always help find the necessary document for
a speech or article or pull the perfect photo-
graph for an upcoming exhibit"
Alterman will "go to any lengths to acquire
and catalog the collections that tell our story;'
Dubin said. "She never says no to requests
for help. It could be a researcher in need of
elusive historical facts. It could be a news-
paper seeking a photograph. It could be an
individual in search of a resting place for
a mass of memorabilia collecting in the attic"
Mike Smith, former director of the
Reuther library and current archivist for
the UAW and Jewish Community collec-

tions there as well as for the Jewish News
Foundation, praises Alterman's knowledge of
the Detroit Jewish community. "She knows
the history, and she knows which collec-
tions are significant. Because of this skill, the
Jewish community in Detroit is one of the
best documented in the United States."
Alterman tried to retire once before,
in 1999, when she became president of
Congregation Beth Shalom in Oak Park. A
few years later, the woman who replaced her
at the community archives left. Alterman
returned as the archives' staffer in 2003 and
stayed for 10 years.
In addition to more than 2 million docu-
ments and 25,000 photos, the community
archive includes 100 oral histories, numer-
ous videos and scrapbooks, and a cemetery
index that is available through the Jewish
Federation's website.
Interesting items in the collection include
a 1914 trophy from the TriSquares, a Jewish
basketball team; a letter from the late Louis
Berry to his family describing his experience
visiting displaced persons camps after World
War II; a cartoon of Fred M. Butzel, one of
the community's most important early lead-
ers; and materials from the Hannah Schloss
Building, a settlement house that was the
first Jewish communal building in Detroit
"My favorite item is a pattern book owned
by Hattie Franklin, the wife of Rabbi Leo
Franklin [of Temple Beth El];' Alterman said.
"The book, which contains stitchery samples,

History on page 16

14 January 16 • 2014

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