Research reconnects students with their roots

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — When Logan Paiste scheduled his spring 2016 classes, he didn’t think he’d end up spending his spring break poking through old cemeteries and calling synagogue secretaries. But that’s exactly what happened when he signed up for Eliyana Adler’s American Jewish Experience course.

Adler, an associate professor of history and Jewish studies at Penn State, has always looked for new ways to introduce her students to research. But in Adler's Eastern European history courses, the language barrier made engaging her students on the topic difficult.

“It’s so rare to have a Ukrainian or Latvian student in class who can read the original texts. So I have to use translated material, which is already a step removed from the original sources,” said Adler. “But then I realized I had another opportunity in my American Jewish history class to get students interested in research.”

This spring, Adler offered an “embedded course” option as part of her Jewish history course in which students chose Jewish historical sites around Pennsylvania to research during Penn State’s spring break. The students then documented their research and published it to a website Adler created using Sites at Penn State (a service supported by Information Technology Services), along with help from digital humanities and GIS staff in the University Libraries and College of the Liberal Arts.

Adler named the site the Museum of Pennsylvania Jewish History and hopes it will eventually become a repository of information about Jewish landmarks across Pennsylvania. The site features a virtual map of the state littered with orange dots. When a dot is clicked, a box pops up with more information and a link to the respective student’s research.

“The students benefit from learning how to conduct original research, possibly for the first time. Research is exhilarating, but it’s also frustrating. You can get sidetracked or derailed,” said Adler. “And more broadly, I’m also hoping the project will be a resource for anyone hoping to learn more about Jewish history in Pennsylvania.”

The project was a natural fit for Paiste, who — while not Jewish himself — has several personal ties to the faith.

Growing up in Allentown, Paiste lived next door to a Jewish couple he describes as his “second grandparents.” They babysat him during the day when he was younger, nourishing him with Israeli food and giving him a greater appreciation for Jewish culture.

“Not only am I still close with my Jewish neighbors, but in 1988 my mother found out that my great-great-great-grandmother was Jewish,” said Paiste. “We know she lived in Allentown, but we don’t know where she’s buried. And I wanted to find out.”

Paiste decided to research Jewish cemeteries in the Allentown area, a decision further fueled by a third personal tie: For years, he and his family had been tending the grave of a family friend's infant daughter in the Keneseth Israel Cemetery.

Paiste began with Keneseth Israel, but soon realized there was already a lot of information documented about the cemetery. So he branched out to others, including Temple Beth El Memorial Park and the Sons of Israel Cemetery, to learn more about Jewish burial customs, headstone traditions and graveyard layouts. In all, he studied seven cemeteries over the weeklong spring break.

While he hasn’t yet been able to find the grave of his distant grandmother, Paiste says he isn’t giving up.

“I need to get an answer to this,” said Paiste. “I'm trying to reconnect with my Jewish roots, because I was raised kind of Jewish and because of my relative. So I'm really trying to just soak it all in. And I've got to find her and her family's headstones.”

Paiste isn’t the only one with personal ties to the course.

Joel Sobel, a retired Census Bureau geographer and 1969 Penn State alumnus, also participated in Adler’s virtual museum project. The son of an Eastern European immigrant, Sobel not only has roots in the Jewish American experience, he also lived it.

“When you think about it, this course is about me,” Sobel said. “The class isn’t just teaching me new things, it’s also explaining things that I personally experienced growing up Jewish in the 1950s. It’s giving me more context. I’ve been having a blast with this course.”

Sobel turned to State College’s past for his project. He decided to delve into the history of Penn State Hillel, a Jewish student organization that now resides in the Pasquerilla Spiritual Center but once had its own building on Locust Lane in State College.

“No one ever wrote about the old Hillel building, so it’s been buried in the archives,” said Sobel. “I thought that by doing the research and publishing the results online, the information would be more accessible to the public and maybe even potential researchers.”

Sobel dug up the building’s blueprints, old photos and even the original deed of sale, as he pieced together the building’s history. He found that it was built in 1951 and used “to conduct business, hold religious services and sponsor social functions” before falling into disrepair and being condemned in 1987.

As he was wrapping up his project, Sobel ran into a snag. While looking at the blueprints and describing how the building once looked, Sobel noticed a detail had he missed. In what he had assumed was a simple, unfinished basement was a single finished room.

“That’s the thing about research, you think you’re almost finished and then you run into something new,” said Sobel. “I thought I was almost done with the project, but then I found this new loose end to explore.”

After a little more investigating, Sobel discovered what the room was used for: a lounge and classroom.

“It’s a small detail, but when you’re doing research, it’s important to be accurate and get everything right,” said Sobel. “I’m so glad I documented this information. It’s important to write these stories down; otherwise, they die along with the people who lived them.”

Adler plans to continue offering the embedded course as part of the class, hoping to grow the virtual museum into an even bigger source of information to those interested in Pennsylvania Jewish history.

“I hope these stories are interesting to the broader community outside the University,” said Adler. “Someone might not realize that they live across the street from an old Jewish cemetery or synagogue. And there's that history that's part of their community, which is invisible but right in front of them. I would like to make that more available.”

To view the online museum (along with Paiste and Sobel’s completed research), visit http://sites.psu.edu/jewishpennsylvania/.

For more IT stories at Penn State, visit http://news.it.psu.edu.

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Last Updated July 28, 2017