The prophetic voice of a late Dallas rabbi, one who had close ties to Southern Methodist University, will be heard again, thanks to a curious archivist who wasn’t content just to file away some reel-to-reel tapes he found in a library storage room.
SMU’s Perkins School of Theology will, on May 5, hold an event to mark the debut of the Rabbi Levi A. Olan Digital Collection. It contains more than 200 sermons that Rabbi Olan preached over Dallas radio.
Perkins’ Bridwell Library is making both text and audio of the sermons available through its website, including a stern and stirring address the rabbi gave on Nov. 22, 1964, marking the one-year anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination in Dallas.
The preservation effort has rekindled an interfaith love affair between the Olan family and SMU, with the rabbi’s daughter, Liz Hirsch, helping raise the funds needed to transfer the sermons from fragile magnetic tape to digital technology.
But she points to the Rev. Tim Binkley, 50-year-old archivist at Bridwell Library, as the hero.
“He is both visionary and extremely competent,” she said. “This project would not have happened without him—period.”
Mr. Binkley, a Church of the Brethren denomination pastor who holds a master’s in public history, started at Bridwell Library in the fall of 2009, having come from another UM school, United Theological Seminary in Ohio.
A few weeks into his Bridwell tenure, he discovered five reel-to-reel tapes in an archive storage room.
“I just ran across them as I was getting to know the collections and trying to figure out how to put things away so they could be found again,” he said.
On closer examination, Mr. Binkley noticed the tapes were marked and bore the name of Rabbi Olan (1903-1984).
“As I searched for an appropriate place to file the tapes, I realized that Bridwell Library has a collection of materials on Rabbi Olan,” Mr. Binkley said. “That was a learning point for me, and I began to explore the story of how a rabbi’s papers would be in the Perkins School of Theology.”
Rabbi Olan was born in Ukraine, grew up in Rochester, N.Y., and studied at Hebrew Union College. He led Dallas’ Temple Emanu-El, the city’s leading Reform Judaism congregation, from 1949 until his retirement in 1970.
He also wrote several books on Judaism and served both as president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis and as a member of the board of regents of the University of Texas.
Rabbi Olan taught a popular course in contemporary Judaism at Perkins from 1952 until 1978.
“It was an elective—students didn’t have to take it—but a large number always did,” said the Rev. Joseph L. Allen, a retired Perkins faculty member and author of a history of the school.
Dr. Allen noted the close bond between Rabbi Olan, who taught on an adjunct basis, and full-time Perkins faculty. He recalled one heated discussion among faculty members, all of them male, given the time period.
“Rabbi Olan said, ‘Now gentlemen, let’s be Christian about this,’” Dr. Allen said. “They got a kick out of that.”
Especially in retirement, Rabbi Olan could often be found at Bridwell Library, working on various writing projects, and visiting with his close friend Decherd Turner, the library director.
“SMU was his second home, really,” Ms. Hirsch said of her father.
To the broader Dallas community, Rabbi Olan was known through The Temple Emanu-El Program, a program broadcast for many years on WFAA-AM radio. He challenged the conservative city on civil rights and a range of other social issues.
In his Nov. 22, 1964 address, for example, he said Dallas could not be blamed for the JFK assassination, but had been shown under intense media scrutiny to be deeply flawed.
“The city which enjoyed boasting of itself with a capital letter was revealed as a place where the number of children who drop out of school is shocking,” he preached. “As the powerful light shone upon it, the city it was learned had been inhospitable to honorable debate. There was bitterness and hate which did not receive the reprimand which ugliness deserves. In a city where some of the largest churches and synagogues are active, it was discovered that they were not concerned with slums, poverty, hatred, or ethical standards.”
Ms. Hirsch said her father felt it was his duty to disturb the peace of the privileged.
“One time a woman came up to him after services and said, ‘Rabbi, I really enjoyed your sermon, and he replied, ‘I hope not,’” Ms. Hirsch recalled.
The more Mr. Binkley learned about Rabbi Olan, the more intrigued he became. He explored the Olan collection at Bridwell, and spoke to people around Perkins who remembered him. He also got in touch with Gerry Cristol, archivist at Temple Emanu-El, who introduced him to Ms. Hirsch.
They formed a friendship, and at her invitation, Mr. Binkley and his wife, Michelle Grimm, took a course on Rabbi Olan at Temple Emanu-El in early 2011.
Rabbi Asher Knight led the group through a study of some of Rabbi Olan’s sermons, with participants taking turns reading aloud from the texts. At the last session, they heard Rabbi Olan himself, from one of the five reel-to-reel tapes Mr. Binkley had found and had preserved both digitally and on cassette tape.
“Rabbi Olan’s delivery is incredible. It’s very moving, and I think we all felt we didn’t want to lose that part of his ministry,” Mr. Binkley said.
Mr. Binkley had already begun to think of sharing the handful of sermons online when, later in 2011, he discovered at Bridwell a much larger cache of tapes of the Temple Emanu-El radio program, bringing the total of recorded Olan sermons to more than 200.
The sheer volume of the collection gave momentum to the preservation effort, as did the age of the tapes.
“The reel-to-reel tape has maybe a 40- to 50-year lifespan,” Mr. Binkley said. “We realized we needed to digitalize them, and fairly quickly.”
Mr. Binkley worked with Ms. Hirsch, who raised funds from friends who admired her father. She said Katherine Bauer provided seed money to make the recordings digital, and Freda Gail Stern and Lois Wolf underwrote making the collection accessible.
“They missed that challenging preaching,” Ms. Hirsch said of the benefactors. “You don’t hear that as much anymore.”
SMU’s Norwick Center for Digital Services made the digital copies of the sermons, which have been turned by digital projects librarian Rebecca Howdeshell into an online archive. It is expected to be fully operational on the Bridwell Library website (http://digitalcollections.smu.edu/all/bridwell/browse.asp) by May 5 or soon thereafter.
The archive will offer PDF files of the sermon texts, allowing for searches of particular words or phrases. It will include audio of the sermons, and even video files that combine the text and audio, with the text scrolling down as Rabbi Olan preaches.
At the May 5 event, Mr. Binkley will demonstrate those formats, featuring the Nov. 22, 1964 address. The Olan legacy in general will be celebrated, including the connection with SMU.
“I’m sure I’ll be weeping the whole time,” Ms. Hirsch said.
Mr. Binkley anticipates new interest in Rabbi Olan as scholars and others use the database. But he already feels rewarded personally.
“This has been an exciting way to get to know Perkins and Bridwell, as well as the Dallas community,” he said.
The Rabbi Levi A. Olan Digital Collection Celebration will be May 5, 2:00-4:00 p.m., in Elizabeth Perkins Prothro Hall at SMU.