Phil Spertus Tells the Up-Close-and-Personal Tale of Dell Jewish Community Campus Creation

Community News, The Jewish Outlook

Sep 1, 2020

The audio and transcript of the interview with Phil Spertus is part of the archive collection housed at the Austin History Center. Screen shot credit: Marvin Hecker

By Sandy Dochen and Gaylon Finklea Hecker

Phil and Sylvia Spertus have significantly impacted Austin since they moved to the city from Chicago in 1989 for Phil to run the local division of his family manufacturing business. Since then, Phil helped organize early meetings that led to the creation of the Dell Jewish Community Campus. He chaired the board of Austin Opera for several years. He has held active memberships in Congregation Agudas Achim and Tiferet Israel.  

Being an early part of the creation of what’s now the campus was a highlight of my life. And, being interviewed brought back some great memories about how this community came together to create this extraordinary resource. – Phil Spertus

And now, Phil has helped to create another round of firsts in Austin’s Jewish community, as one of the first supporters of the new Austin Jewish Community Archive, a volunteer effort begun last year to collect and preserve papers, photographs and oral histories that recount the making of the Austin Jewish Community. 

Spertus was the first to donate important files of meeting minutes and other types of documents from the planning period of the early- to mid- 90s for the Dell Jewish Community Campus. He also just recently became the first person to be interviewed for an oral history, under the auspices of this new organization, describing the planning and building of the campus from his front seat perspective.

“Being an early part of the creation of what’s now the campus was a highlight of my life,” Spertus said. “And, being interviewed brought back some great memories about how this community came together to create this extraordinary resource.”

Fellow archive Oral History Committee co-chairs Gaylon Finklea Hecker, past editor of The Jewish Outlook, and Sandy Dochen, a past president of Shalom Austin and Austin native, interviewed Spertus for several hours in late July.

“We wanted to interview Phil in person, in the traditional oral history manner but didn’t want to wait for the end of COVID-19 to do safely,” explained Finklea Hecker. “He was anxious for us to get started and not let the project linger.”

Austin Jewish Archive Spertus Dochen

Phil Spertus talked with Sandy Dochen and Gaylon Finklea Hecker over Zoom about his role in creating the Dell Jewish Community Campus. Screen shot credit: Marvin Hecker

“We had a blast interviewing Phil on Zoom. The online process worked out well, and we captured the stories and details about his crucial role for all time and for researchers who in the future will want to learn more about that period when the Jewish Community grew and thrived,” added Dochen. The interview will be transcribed, with the audio and transcript becoming part of the archive collection housed at the Austin History Center.

The Austin Jewish Community Archive is an affiliate of the Austin History Center, associated with the Austin Public Library. The goal is to create an historic record of the city’s Jewish presence and its major milestones, including Spertus’s participation in the creation of the Dell Jewish Community Campus.

In addition to Spertus, a growing list of Austinites to be interviewed ranges from religious leaders to community activists, elected officials, business owners, educators and many others. Committee volunteers are training to become interviewers.

Paul Keeper, an attorney and past president of Congregation Beth Israel, and Suzy Seriff, professor of anthropology at the University of Texas and longtime member of Congregation Agudas Achim, originated the idea of the Austin Jewish Archives in 2019 with Mike Miller, manager of the Austin History Center, and Jeff Cohen, executive director of the Austin History Center Association.  They and other volunteers have met several times to breathe life into this new organization.

“When my grandmother, Rose Keeper, a first generation Houston native from Minsk, died in 2000, she left behind countless diary entries and letters that in effect, tracked Houston’s Jewish history,” Keeper explained.  

He felt that these letters would offer great insight for future generations and researchers. Keeper agreed to donate them to the Houston Jewish Archive housed at Rice University. That experience fueled his interest in creating something similar in Austin.  

Members of Congregation Agudas Achim and Congregation Beth Israel are in the process of organizing files and other historic documents that will become part of the archives. In that spirit, Austin Jewish Community Archive Committee members and Austin History Center professionals urge anyone who has files, letters, old meeting minutes of Jewish organizations, photos and other family and historic records reflecting Austin’s Jewish past to consider donating them to the Austin Jewish Archives.

“In this time of COVID-19, when we’re trapped at home and might be reviewing forgotten contents in closets, we don’t want anyone to throw away anything that might help us retain more of Austin’s Jewish history for the future. As Austin continues to expand, it is important to capture now how our earlier day Jewish community grew and evolved and to learn about our past as we build our future,” Seriff stated.

If you have materials to donate or would like to learn more about this effort, please contact Paul Keeper at pdk1108@gmail.com. ■

 

To read more about how Phil Spertus helped to create the Dell Jewish Community Campus, visit online.fliphtml5.com/iylbt/brlh/.

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