A delegation of archivists representing several U.S. government and private institutions joined several dozen members of Jewish communities in suburban Maryland, Virginia, and Washington, D.C., for a rare presentation given by Jewish Educational Media, the Chabad-Lubavitch organization responsible for preserving and disseminating footage of the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, of righteous memory.

The April 10 event in the private screening room at the capital headquarters of the Motion Picture Association of America gave the audience of 70 people a taste of some of the fruits of JEM's ongoing Living Archive project, a multimillion-dollar effort at halting the decay of nearly 4,000 hours of video footage and audio recordings of the Rebbe and his predecessor, the Sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchok Schneersohn, of righteous memory.

"In today's day and age, we know that nothing is more powerful, more able to recreate an experience, than video and audio," JEM director Rabbi Elkanah Shmotkin told those gathered. But "in the last few years, the tapes and the videos that we had previously been playing without a problem get jammed in the machine, or the tape head gets clogged. Audio pieces aren't as crisp and clear as they were only a year before."

"Here we have this treasure, this tool, this inspiration, … and it's melting away," he said later. "And the problem is not limited to JEM's collection. Industry wide, archivists have realized that the best way to preserve audiovisual materials is by migrating them to more robust media. But it's an expensive and complex proposition."

Shmotkin's speech was interspersed with video clips from JEM's ongoing "Living Torah" series of DVDs, as well as snippets of the Rebbe's teachings. It was designed mostly to educate people who were unaware of the problem facing archivists today, or for those who were unaware of the Chabad-Lubavitch collection.

But it was also a sales-pitch: to get more people in the archival community involved in the effort, and to solicit contributions among concerned members of the Jewish community.

"I think it's a very worthwhile project," said Washington attorney Martin Jacobs, who was invited to the program by Rabbi Shmuel Kaplan, director of Chabad-Lubavitch of Maryland. "I saw footage I've never seen. I was at a lecture shortly after the Rebbe [passed away in 1994], and [the lecturer] said that the Rebbe would be observed through pictures. It's not just his published teachings, but videos that will occupy a valuable space for a whole generation of Jews."

Jacobs added that the experience at the screening served as a dramatic exclamation point to that lecture he heard more than 12 years ago.

To date, more than $2 million has been raised by JEM, out of an estimated need of $3.8 million. It received a planning grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities late last year, and the National Film Preservation Foundation has signed on to the project.

A Relative Bargain

Rabbi Elkanah Shmotkin, director of Jewish Educational Media, speaks about JEM’s Living Archive, which contains more than 4,000 hours of footage of the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, of righteous memory.
Rabbi Elkanah Shmotkin, director of Jewish Educational Media, speaks about JEM’s Living Archive, which contains more than 4,000 hours of footage of the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, of righteous memory.
Sarah Stauderman, preservation manager for the Smithsonian Institution, said after the reception that the presentation proved the archive's significance not just to the Jewish community, but to the world.

"What the presentation showed is that it's not just important to the cultural community, but also to the academic and historical communities," she explained. "How to make [the archives] public and accessible, but also to preserve them, is an important and difficult issue that we're dealing with today."

Joshua Harris, chief archivist for National Geographic, likewise lauded the effort.

"I had heard of JEM before through my profession, but I really didn't know the extent of its collections until this," he said. "The archives are extremely unique and interesting to learn about."

Archivists from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, the National Library of Medicine, the National Historical Publications and Records Commission, the National Archives, and the Association of Moving Image Archivists also attended the presentation. MPAA chairman Dan Glickman helped arrange the event.

Harris noted that among National Geographic's collections are videos of extinct cultural groups. His staff is daily trying to catalogue and preserve such material, which in many cases can be the only evidence of a people's existence in history. He contrasted that with JEM, which represents a living group that grows with each passing year.

"You can look back at these unique audiovisual items and have an appreciation for the cultural heritage that the Rebbe created," explained Harris. "It has an outstanding historical value for the group, but also for America as well. I've never seen any collection quite like it."

For his part, Kaplan – who worked with Rabbi Levi Shemtov, director of the Washington office of American Friends of Lubavitch, to produce the event – cast the JEM collection in a spiritual light.

"You can see the Rebbe's radiance in these videos," said Kaplan. "It comes through, and people appreciate it. When you bring the amount of content that's there to the world community, more people will understand the value of the collection.

"People are willing to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars for one page of a handwritten manuscript by Maimonides," he continued. "So when we're talking about saving this huge archive for a couple of million dollars, it's a bargain compared to the treasures it contains."