Penn State

Penn State class digs up roots of Pa. Jewish history

Penn State professor of history and Jewish studies Eliyana Adler has been working on developing Museum of Pennsylvania Jewish History website.
Penn State professor of history and Jewish studies Eliyana Adler has been working on developing Museum of Pennsylvania Jewish History website. nmark@centredaily.com

Sometimes you have to make lemons into lemonade.

There are not a great many quality lemonade stands lurking just around the corner from the bulk of Pennsylvania’s Jewish cemeteries — but nevertheless, Logan Paiste was determined to make due.

Paiste is a Jewish studies major at Penn State and a student in professor Eliyana Adler’s American Jewish Experience course.

He was also up a creek without a paddle.

Paiste was one of two students in Adler’s course who had volunteered to take on an in-depth research project — during spring break, no less — in exchange for an extra class credit.

Part of what you find out from doing research is that there are all kinds of dead ends you hit.

Eliyana Adler

He had thought hard about the subject matter he wanted to pursue, crafted a meticulous search plan and then watched helplessly as it promptly fell apart.

Call it a professional hazard.

“Part of what you find out from doing research is that there are all kinds of dead ends you hit,” Adler said.

She knows this firsthand.

Adler had been trying to find a way to get her students more engaged with history. To that end she began developing the initial idea for what would become the Museum of Pennsylvania Jewish History, an online resource cataloging Jewish landmarks in the Keystone State.

“I realized there’s quite a lot of Jewish history in small towns all over Pennsylvania,” Adler said.

The content for the site would be supplied by student volunteers — which, of course, is where things hit a bit of a snag.

Adler had offered the students free rein to explore any subject they would like and in retrospect, she thinks it was probably a little intimidating.

“I sort of view this as a trial run,” Adler said.

Paiste and Joel Sobel, a Penn State alumnus turned retired Census Bureau geographer, were the only takers.

Sobel and his wife share a passion for learning and had received Adler’s permission to sit in on the class.

“I do all the readings. I don’t have to, but I’m taking the class and I want to learn, “ Sobel said.

He originally had no intention of participating in the project, but his curiosity regarding the former headquarters of Penn State Hillel on Locust Lane in State College eventually got the better of him.

Sometimes new data would change everything.

Logan Paiste

Sobel consulted old newspaper clippings, maps and even blueprints to build his research.

“I’d worked hard and very carefully on it,” Sobel said.

Paiste’s project hit a little closer to home. He had originally been hoping to create a genealogy of his own family history and find the grave of his distant grandmother.

He hit a stalemate in his search and was forced to adapt his project accordingly — and not for the last time.

“Sometimes new data would change everything,” Paiste said.

His final product compiles the research he conducted on several Jewish cemeteries in and around Allentown.

There was a steep learning curve.

“It just made me realize the more I was investigating, the less I realized I really knew about Jewish history,” Paiste said.

Paiste and Sobel’s projects can be viewed at http://sites.psu.edu/jewishpennsylvania/.

Adler, for one, is hoping that the burgeoning site continues to grow.

“I would really like it to be a major clearinghouse for information about Pennsylvania Jewish history,” Adler said.

Frank Ready: 814-231-4620, @fjready

  Comments