If Hollywood were to cast someone to play historian Aimee Ergas in a movie, the casting director would call for a curious entrepreneur of knowledge, a woman of average height wearing a sun hat and red shoes who, like most historians, is eager to share her litany of facts and anecdotes.
The public will have a chance to meet Aimee Ergas when she receives the Jewish Historical Society of Michigan’s 2017 Leonard N. Simons History Award at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, May 10, at Temple Kol A
mi, where she and her husband, Dr. Tor Shwayder, are members.
“Few who have received this award have the street-level history chops that Aimee does,” said JHSM president Neil Gorosh. In selecting Ergas for this award, the selection committee noted Ergas’ voluminous documentation of Michigan’s Jewish history.
“You can be standing next to Aimee in a crowded coffee shop and, without missing a blink, she’d be sharing anecdotes about Jews in baseball, inspiring stories of women who served in the military and expound on the life of [the late local philanthropist and leader] Max M. Fisher.”
The Simons Award, established in 1991 and presented annually by JHSM, honors those who not only preserve Michigan’s Jewish history, but also promote awareness of outstanding Jewish contributions.
Ergas, whose pediatric dermatologist husband helped develop her habit of always wearing a sun hat, also wears multiple professional hats. She is an archivist at the Walter P. Reuther Library-Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs at Wayne State University, overseeing the collections of the Jewish Community Archives and other special projects. She also serves as research adviser to JHSM.
Educated at Wellesley College and Tufts University, Ergas’ Jewish historical career began some 25 years ago when she signed on as a volunteer to write articles for JHSM. She then began to help curate exhibits, bring internationally renowned historians to the area, and to research the people behind the stories that have helped to create an understanding of the footsteps of Michigan’s Jewish foremothers and forefathers.
A feminist at heart, it was fitting that in 2003 Ergas became JHSM’s first director, male or female. In that role, she advanced JHSM from an obscure society into a viable organization by initiating new programs and attracting new members, donors and partners.
Encouraged by colleagues, she then entered the archival administration program at WSU in 2007, leading to her current position where her projects have included archiving the papers of Judge Avern Cohn and Fisher. Ergas officially left JHSM in 2012, after producing the “Haven to Home” exhibition at the Detroit Historical Museum, but continues to support the organization as both volunteer and adviser.
“Aimee is more than a top-notch archivist,” said Erik Nordberg, director of the Reuther Library. “She is also a thoughtful, sincere and empathetic individual who is just enjoyable to interact with on a regular basis.”
Although Ergas is being celebrated for her list of notable accomplishments, including curating the recent JHSM-sponsored exhibition at the Detroit Historical Museum exhibition, “Chasing Dreams: Baseball & Becoming American,” she’s most proud of the development and launch of JHSM’s “Michigan Women Who Made a Difference” (MWWMD) research project and the 2015 publication of the corresponding book.
“When I was director of JHSM, I frequently worked on tours of historic Jewish Detroit,” Ergas said. “I noticed that missing from our narrative were the stories of the women who helped to build and shape our communities. As I dug deeper, I found those records simply did not exist or were buried in dust.”
Working with Aimee in my capacity as JHSM’s current director, we successfully requested grant funding from the Jewish Women’s Foundation to launch the project that would begin to document the biographies of Michigan women who helped shape Michigan’s Jewish communities. MWWMD, which now includes some 200 biographies, continues. Ergas conducted the research.
“Having the honor of interviewing Annetta Miller and Sylvia Granader was remarkably inspiring,” said Ergas, who interviewed these two Jewish war veterans for inclusion in the book. Both served in World War II; Miller as a nurse and Granader, who died in 2016, as a pilot.
“I knew so little about these women who sacrificed so much but also found an important role. Both shared with me many details of their lives during this time,” Ergas said.
Women’s studies have long been a passion of Ergas, who now serves as volunteer adviser to the project and is looking forward to the May 10 launch of the online archives, which will be on JHSM’s website (michjewishhistory.org).
Ergas, who lives in Farmington Hills, will be honored at the Jewish Historical Society of Michigan’s Annual Meeting by her longtime friend, documentary filmmaker Aviva Kempner, who, like Ergas, has an interest in uncovering stories of lesser-known Jewish “Heroes and Sheroes.” The two will share some of these stories while also examining some clips from Kempner’s films, which include Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg (2009), The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg (2000) and Rosenwald (2015).
At the event, the JHSM will also pay tribute to Stanley Meretsky of West Bloomfield, a community activist and past president of JHSM, who will receive the Leonard N. Simons Lifetime Achievement Award. Margery Jablin, also of West Bloomfield, will be honored as JHSM’s Volunteer of the Year.
The Jewish Historical Society of Michigan was founded in 1959 to promote and celebrate the story of Michigan’s Jewish communities, organizations and citizens. Throughout the year and throughout the state, JHSM presents programs, tours, events and publications that preserve and proudly bring to life the stories of Michigan’s settlers along with the legacies of today’s innovators and urban pioneers.
Wendy Rose Bice Special to the Jewish News
For reservations to the May 10 Annual Meeting, call (248) 432-5517 or visit michjewishhistory.org. Tickets are $40, including a dessert reception after the program.