News & Events

New Collection Commemorates Area Jewish Life

Everyday activities of central Illinois merchants, leaders chronicled


As a young girl growing up in Bloomington, Illinois, Sybil Stern Mervis ’57 MEDIA was gifted a typewriter from her parents to better record news for the neighborhood paper. Her enthusiasm for Girl Scouts taught her to be goal-oriented, her love of the Nancy Drew mystery series instilled a sense of independence, and her participation in IFJY (Illinois Federation of Jewish Youth) connected her to people who shared her culture.


Sybil Stern Mervis


It’s no wonder that at the age of 86, Mervis, a longtime resident of Danville, Illinois, could channel that kind of energy and determination into a project she created from the ground up—the Central Illinois Jewish Communities Archives/Mervis Archives, a collection that chronicles the history of ordinary Jewish life in the region. The project will be housed in the Main Library’s Illinois History and Lincoln Collections and is expected to open to the public by late spring.

“The establishment of these archives provides a critical contribution to future research and engagement with the stories and contributions of Jewish communities in central Illinois,” said Krista Gray, archives program officer for IHLC. “We are grateful to have the opportunity to preserve and make these materials more broadly accessible at the University of Illinois Library.”

A longtime historian of Jewish life in the area, Mervis has written numerous books and articles on the topic throughout the decades. But it was the closing of Danville’s Congregation Anshe Knesset Israel synagogue in 2012, due to a dwindling population, that sparked the glimmerings of the archival project.

“So, I gave away the kosher china and brisket pans, the prayerbooks and prayer shawls,” Mervis said in a public lecture, recalling the heartbreaking dismantling process. But after dispersing myriad items—from Torahs to ark drapes—records and papers remained. These she stored in a warehouse.

Deciding she could not write the more recent history of Jews in Danville without appearing biased (she and her late husband, Lou, had been prominent members of that community), Mervis turned to Erez Cohen, hoping he might know of an impartial person to help. Executive director of Illini Hillel on campus, Cohen strongly believed the synagogue records should stay in central Illinois; he eventually connected the materials with Dara Goldman, head of the UI Program in Jewish Culture & Society, who then established the link to the University Library.

To additionally bolster the project, the Jewish community raised more than $75,000 in four months’ time to support the cataloguing of the collection and future programs and exhibitions.

The collection includes a wide range of materials, including news clippings, oral histories, photographs, memories, calendars, cemetery records, and the like. Mervis has already heard from academics around the nation interested in using the resources and learning how the collection was set up. But most importantly, she wants to establish a record of how members of the Jewish population—its leaders, merchants, and families—embraced their environment, and what their settlement, from the 1800s onward, meant to both Jews and non-Jews alike.



“Very few people have written about small-town Jewish life,” Mervis said. As she commented in her lecture, “If you were a youngster, you knew that you could walk in any of those stores and get help if you needed it. It was a warm and comfortable way of life, now hardly even imaginable.

“Those halcyon days and those owners are all gone, having passed into history, and that is what we are trying to preserve: their history as important contributors to their communities.”


Note: The Illinois History and Lincoln Collections welcomes inquiries from individuals or other small congregations across central Illinois interested in contributing their records to this archival collection. For more information about the donation process and what might be a good fit, visit or email