The International Survey of Jewish Monuments (ISJM): Past, Present & Future
ISJM was founded in 1977 by an international group of distinguished scholars concerned with the lack of reliable information available about Jewish art and sites, and the limited attention given to Jewish art and architecture within the academic disciplines. Recognizing the considerable cultural value of Jewish art objects and historic sites, ISJM initiated an active program of information exchange and a small program of research grants to encourage greater interest and understanding of this heritage. An initial grant from the Samuel H. Kress Foundation, and continuing support form the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, made this work possible. For example, ISJM was among the first to sponsor documentation of Jewish sites in Morocco and Turkey.
Overall, ISJM activities consisted of four main components:
- Information exchange through the publication of a newsletter (1977-1990)
- Focus on scholarly work through regular sessions at academic conferences including the College Art Association, the International Congress on the History of Art, and the Annual Medieval Congress held at Western Michigan University (Kalamazoo)
- Stimulation of documentation of Jewish sites through research grants
- Advocacy for the documentation protection of Jewish sites through letters and meetings with government and Jewish officials
Quantifying the results of these efforts is difficult, but in retrospect, it is clear that as a whole they were very effective in educating and sensitizing a large group of people to critical issues at a crucial time. After a decade of such work, public interest in the fate of Jewish monuments had dramatically increased. Many of the scholars and activists who are leaders in related fields received their first support and public exposure through ISJM.
Today, museums and academic programs increasingly incorporate Jewish historic and artistic material into their public offerings. Programs such as the Jewish Heritage Program of the World Monuments Fund (WMF) rely heavily on the agenda first established by ISJM. Founded in 1988, this program, with the help of many ISJM members, expanded its work in the direction of monument documentation and preservation. Importantly, WMF's efforts more fully integrated the study and preservation of Jewish monuments into the wider fields of architectural history and historic preservation. In Israel, new ground was broken by the Center for Jewish Art at Hebrew University through their expanded research and publishing activities.
For a while, it seemed that the original goals of ISJM had been achieved, and except for the scheduling of conference sessions, the organization greatly reduced its activities for a number of years. It became clear, however, that this cessation of activities was premature. Precisely because of the explosion of new information and efforts, there remain important roles for the organization to play. These functions include: acting as an open forum for the interchange of information, ideas opinions and methodologies between scholars, curators, activities, funders and the religious community concerning the fate of Jewish monuments worldwide; serving as an umbrella organization for the many extremely valuable independent research, exhibition and preservation efforts that continue to develop without the aid of major institutions; and facilitating the initiation of new research ventures that cross institutional, organizational, political, religious and geographic boundaries. To this end, ISJM was re-launched in 1997 -- twenty years after its initial founding -- with a newly defined mission and vision.
The purpose of the organization is not to supplant or subvert the efforts of the existing organizations, but to better tie these efforts together into a synthetic whole. It is the experience of many of ISJM members, most who whom are affiliated with other organizations, that too often institutions become too invested in their own agendas (for natural and expected reasons) to be sufficiently aware, considerate and appreciative of what others are doing in the field. The result is often unfortunate - fostering insularity and competition instead of cooperation. While ISJM doesn't believe that it can smooth all differences in a field where resources are often limited and competition is intense, it does believe that it can serve as a bridge for greater discussion and interaction. ISJM has established partnerships with organizations in the fields of art, architecture, planning, preservation, museums, genealogy, religion and more. Many of these relationships exist on personal levels - since ISJM draws membership from all of these fields. In time, and utilizing the internet and other new technologies, ISJM will formalize these bonds.
In the past ISJM offered specialized sessions at three international conferences -- College Art Association, the International Congress of the History of Art, and the Annual Medieval Congress held at Western Michigan University (Kalamazoo). ISJM now presents sessions though a variety of venues. Special sessions at international conferences are considered on a case by case basis. More frequently, ISJM encourages its members to organize sessions and present papers about Jewish heritage issues in many venues, when appropriate. Sessions on Jewish hertiage issues can regularly be found in the programs of the College Art Association (CAA), the Society of Architectural Historians (SAH), the Association for Jewish Studies (AJS) and more more academic and historic preservation organizations. Specialized conferecnes in many countires are also regularly scheduled. In recent years there have been important gatherings in Prague (Czech Republic), Braunschwieg (Germany), L'viv (Ukraine), Kazimierz Dolny (Poland), Bratislava (Slovakia), Jerusalem (Israel), and most recently (April 2013) in Krakow (Poland).
ISJM activities include:
- establishment of a grants program to channel research, exhibition and publication funding to individuals and institutions through a Research Fund and Publication Fund (see below)
- the sponsorship of exhibitions through partnerships (In 2008: Before the Flame Goes Out in partnership with the Museum of Biblical art in New York)
- provision of grant proposal critiques and reviews for applicant and sponsors
- distribution of teaching aids to improve teaching of Jewish art and architecture
- establishment of an ISJM e-mail listserve and an ISJM Website
- provide a translation service for important articles in little-known languages to be translated into English and made available to members at a modest price
- establishment of a speaker's bureau to better move the discussion of Jewish monuments to a broader public
The great strength of ISJM lies in its members. ISJM has no regularly paid staff - it operates as a members’ cooperative. While members are encouraged to raise money (especially for the Research and Publication Funds) they are also asked to contribute their knowledge and skills in order to help the field. This takes the form of sharing information; location and access to resources; photographic collections; bibliographic citations; technical assistance in preservation; language skills; and host of other talents. Among our distinguished membership are many of the foremost scholars in the fields of Jewish art and architecture, as well as preservationists, foundation officials, journalists, and rabbis.