Orienteering

Archival research resembles a hiking trip. You start out the hike with a path you decided to follow based on some known information: distance, incline, degree of difficulty. The first few miles you manage to keep yourself oriented to the path as rendered on your map. There are clear cairns, or trail markers, that keep you from wandering astray. At some point, though, you come to the intersection of two trails, or the trail markers become obscured, and you can no longer tell if you're going north or south, east or west. Experienced hikers can figure it out quickly and get back on the trail, but if you're not so good at reading a map you end up standing there, looking left and right, unsure of whether you should forge on or backtrack. You wonder--what will happen if I leave this path? Will I wander off so far that I can't find my way back to this point, or will this be a productive detour that leads me past some beautiful nature stuff that I didn't even know was there?

If the dissertation prospectus is my map, and the historical narrative (the history of JCCs) is my trail, I feel like I'm standing in the middle of the woods completely disoriented. Up until now, this path was all about children--more specifically, how Jewish social workers in JCCs tried to prevent delinquency and promote conformity and "adjustment" to an American-Jewish identity. Moreover, I presumed these kids were secular or Reform Jews. As I've read through historical records from urban JCCs in the 1960s-70s, though, that path has become less clear. Somehow, I've found myself on an intersecting trail, one that runs somewhat parallel to the first but has its own distinct features--Jewish Senior Citizens and Orthodox Jews! 

I'm not sure why I didn't foresee this change of direction. Youth culture and Conservative Judaism moved out to the suburbs after WWII, leaving behind an older and more observant Jewish community. JCCs were increasingly called upon to deliver services to senior citizens, despite their long history of being a youth-centric institution. Most young Jews in the city, however, were Orthodox. The JCCs, which espoused pluralism, had often come into conflict with the Orthodox community. Most of their children went to Yeshivas, and parents found alternative leisure spaces for them rather than have them exposed to non-observant Jews, or God forbid to non Jews! By the '70s, though, the JCC felt pressured to cater to Orthodox families. Demographic changes thus had a big influence on the evolution of the JCC. 

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The other big influence that I did not foresee when plotting out the prospectus was how economic recession in the 1970s would influence the JCCs' embrace of programming for Senior citizens. 

In New York, for example, the municipal government provided funding to JCCs for service programs dedicated to improving the quality of life of older adults. These ranged from subsidized lunches to tenant advocacy to housekeeping assistance to transportation. Urban JCCs became multi-generational or family centers during these years because this funding filled budget shortfalls, and because serving older Jews provided a new justification for their existence after the departure of young families and children from the city. 

To return to my tired hiking analogy, I'm currently sitting on a log eating a PB and J while I try to decide the direction in which  I should trek. It's scary to wander away from the narrative I outlined in my prospectus, but I also get the feeling that the view will be better if I follow the money... And the old people.