The Western Jewish History Center (WJHC) was established in 1967 at the Judah L. Magnes Museum to collect, preserve, and provide access to archival and oral history documentation about the Jewish community in the American West. The center was created by Seymour Fromer under the direction of Moses Rischin, and from an early stage saw the involvement of a series of archivists and local historians, including Ruth Kelson Rafael, Fred Rosenbaum and Ava Kahn.
The archival collections created under the Western Jewish History Center are now part of the Western Jewish Americana archives of The Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life at the Bancroft Library, and encompass the entire western United States beginning with the 1849 Gold Rush and continuing to the present, with a specific focus on the Jewish experience in California and the San Francisco Bay Area.
Many paintings, sculptures, and ritual objects initially collected by the Western Jewish History Center are now part of the museum collections of Jewish art and life.
From 1967 until 2010, when the archives were transferred to The Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life at The Bancroft Library, the Western Jewish History Center occupied the top floor of the Magnes Museum, the former Jeremiah Thaddeus Burke mansion in Berkeley, California. The theme of Western American Jewish history, however, pervaded all activities of the Judah L. Magnes Museum, itself named after Judah L. Magnes (1877-1948), the first native-born rabbi from the American West and the first Chancellor of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, a cultural and political activist who, in the eyes of the founders, symbolized the spirit of California’s Jews in their achievements and contributions to global humanity.
The Center published over twenty monographs and bibliographies based on its collections. These imprints includeTaking Risks: A Jewish Youth in the Soviet Partisans and His Unlikely Life in California by Fred Rosenbaum (2004), winner of Forward Magazine's Book of the Year award, and The Jews of the West: The Metropolitan Years, edited by Dr. Moses Rischin (1979).
The Western Jewish History Center staff and collections provided guidance and research materials to over a dozen fundamental studies in Jewish Americana including Jewish Life in the American West by Ava Kahn (2002), Pioneer Jews, A New Life in the West by Harriet Rochlin (2000), Towers of Gold by Frances Dinkelspiel (2008), and Cosmopolitans. A Social and Cultural History of the Jews of the San Francisco Bay Area by Fred Rosenbaum (2009).