AJHS debuts online exhibit in memory of Rabbi Plotkin

Rabbi Albert Plotkin and his wife, Sylvia, celebrate his 70th birthday.

The Arizona Jewish Historical Society debuted its first online exhibit last week, the Rabbi Plotkin Memorial Project, which features photographs, documents and sound recordings of Rabbi Albert Plotkin.

Plotkin moved to the Valley in 1955 to serve as spiritual leader of Temple Beth Israel (now Congregation Beth Israel), where he was later named rabbi emeritus. During his more than five decades in the Valley, he worked as an activist for civil rights, women's rights and veterans' issues; volunteered as a chaplain at Phoenix Veterans Hospital for about 25 years; promoted interfaith relations; co-founded Arizona State University's Jewish Studies Program; and served as an instrumental force in AJHS' restoration of the original site of TBI, which is now known as the Cutler-Plotkin Jewish Heritage Center.

Many of Plotkin's passions are represented in the AJHS exhibit, ranging from family photographs, yearbooks from his years at the University of Notre Dame, documents related to his work with the ecumenical community - including a great deal of content related to Pope John Paul II's 1987 visit to Phoenix - and music. The collection even includes a 45 RPM microgroove recording of Plotkin singing bar mitzvah blessings for the Torah and Haftorah, produced at Canyon Records' recording studio in Phoenix, and a recording of Plotkin singing "Ole Man River" in December 2005. Both can be played on the site.

After Plotkin's death in February 2010, his daughter Janis donated nearly a dozen boxes of items from her father's home, according to Lawrence Bell, AJHS executive director.

Since January, Marty Richelsoph, who has volunteered as an archivist at AJHS since 2006, has spent about six hours a week organizing and processing the content.

"As far as rabbis go, he was really an iconic figure," Richelsoph said. "There hasn't been anybody like him since."

Included in the boxes were pages and pages of Plotkin's sermons through the years, starting from the early 1950s before he arrived in the Valley through 2005, Richelsoph said. "The early ones are all typed on a manual typewriter, and the latest ones were done on a word-processing program on a computer."

In May of this year, AJHS was seeking an intern to build an online exhibit, working with archives and digitization, said Serene Rock, AJHS events and programming coordinator. Enter Bethany Ronnberg, who was studying library science at the University of Arizona.

"We brainstormed on different ideas that we could digitize from our collection and Rabbi Plotkin seemed like the logical first exhibit for us," Rock said.

So far, everything in the online exhibit is from the AJHS archives - "a very small percentage of the entire Plotkin collection," Rock noted - but the site allows people to contribute additional photographs or memories. (AJHS will approve submissions before they go live.)

The open-source software used for the exhibit, Omeka, is free for a limited amount of space, but AJHS will eventually need to upgrade for more space, Rock said.

"We were able to do this project on a shoestring budget because we had really dedicated people who wanted to volunteer their time, effort and expertise for us," Bell said. Donations to AJHS' Rabbi Plotkin Memorial Fund will allow projects like this to continue, he added. "This is the kind of thing that we'd like to use that money for ... to allow us to bring the things we have in our collection and make them available to the public."

Because of the size of the collection, AJHS is seeking volunteers and interns to help go through it, as well as to scan selected items.

Since this exhibit is a first for AJHS, Bell warns users that there may be some kinks in the program and encourages visitors to have patience when using the site. "It's kind of an experiment for us."

To view the exhibit, visit azjhs.omeka.net/exhibits. Contact AJHS at 602-241-7870 or visit azjhs.org.

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