Peg Finkelstein and the Historical Archives: It’s a Family Affair

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"It's pretty much a family affair," said Margaret (Peg) Finkelstein, Director of the Peg & Mort Finkelstein Historical Archives at Temple Emanuel in Grand Rapids.

At least, that's where Peg's fascination with history began.

In March 2017, Peg received the Olson Lifetime Contribution of Local History Award from the Kutsche Office of Local History at Grand Valley State University, for her lifelong research and work using history to give voice to diverse communities—a tenure that began as the keeper of her family history.

One day, Peg began rummaging through boxes containing documents and photos. "Stuff would sit there and sit there. Especially if it was pictures and paper. Nobody wanted all that."

Peg, however, did want it. Now, she can trace her family history back as early to the 1450s. She has a family ledger from the New France settlement in Quebec, Canada. She knows the family stories, including her mother's childhood. Her father's childhood. How the two met at the roller rink that once existed inside the Ramsdell Regional Center for the Arts in Manistee.

"I don't consider myself a genealogist. I just like history."

Peg notes transitioning into the role as director of the Peg & Mort Finkelstein Historical Archives at Temple Emanuel was a "natural fit."

Temple Emanuel's archives were originally curated and kept by June Horowitz and her mother. When June's health began to decline, Peg's husband, Mort, told her: "We need to do something about the archives."

The project became a family affair.

She and Mort have revolutionized the archives since 2002, when they began funding and directing the Peg & Mort Finkelstein Historical Archives, to preserve Jewish history within Grand Rapids' communities.

Temple Emanuel's archives date back to the mid-1800s and include the 500 volume personal library of Julius Houseman, one of Temple Emanuel's founders and the first Jewish mayor of Grand Rapids.

With the help of her daughter, Megan Finkelstein-Yost, Peg continues to uncover history, including a recent exhibition on Jewish participation in Civil War.

Today, displays of artifacts and articles—among them a 350-year-old Torah that the Nazis confiscated from Czechoslovakia—are prominently located throughout the building on East Fulton Street.

"I wanted a user-friendly archive," Peg said. Not only did she uncover history, but she reorganized all the documents. Once stored in manila folders and boxes, records are now stored in books and binders. She's always striving to digitally convert all the files—the accounting records, cemetery records, board meeting minutes, eulogies, tape recordings and more—so anyone can easily access the information.

The Peg & Mort Finkelstein Historical Archives was the 2012 recipient of the State History Award from the Historical Society of Michigan. The family fair, however, is gaining national and international interest. Synagogues 360 is slated to document Temple Emmanuel's beautiful architecture and rich history, and Peg is currently working on getting Temple Emmanuel designated as a historical site by the State of Michigan.

"We're just trying to preserve everything we have here."

Written by Cassie Westrate, staff writer for West Michigan Woman

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