After more than four decades, Jeanne Abrams retires from her role preserving Jewish history in the Rocky Mountains

Jan 8, 2024 | Article, Newsletter

After nearly 42 years, Jeanne Abrams is retiring from her position at the University of Denver in February. She would likely be the first to say that no one is irreplaceable, but replacing Jeanne Abrams will take more than one person.

Jeanne Abrams portraitFor many years, she has moved seamlessly among her multiple roles—full professor who has been recognized for research, books, and articles; Curator of the University of Denver Libraries’ Beck Archives; and Director of the Rocky Mountain Jewish Historical Society (RMJHS), housed within the University’s Center for Judaic Studies. With her departure, the university will now divide her duties into two full-time positions.

Abrams mentions this detail matter-of-factly. She is not boasting about her own capacity for diligence and hard work, just stating the facts—as one would expect of someone with a PhD in history.

“When I first came to the university for this job, they were looking for someone who had a background in history, archiving experience, and a strong connection to the Jewish community,” she says. “Through the years, the job expanded to include programming, outreach, teaching, and development. People are more specialized now, and not everyone can do all those things.”

Letting go of the work of two people is “bittersweet,” Abrams says. “I have loved what I have done for the past 42 years. I really feel like I have accomplished many goals.”

Chief among those goals was her singular mission—to preserve and publicize the very rich and dynamic Jewish experience in the Rocky Mountain West. That this mission has rested for so many years in the hands of a woman who was the child of Holocaust survivors with little or no formal schooling is a story of education and dedication.

‘I was a multi-tasker’

Abrams’ parents met in Stockholm after they were brought out of Poland after the war by the Swedish Red Cross. Her father’s first wife and two children were murdered in the Holocaust. His new family came to the United States when Jeanne was less than a year old. Her mother had attended school through eighth grade. She believes her father never went to school formally.

“Neither of my parents spoke English, but education was a priority for them,” she says. “I remember helping my father study the basics of American democracy for his citizenship test. It was meaningful for him because at the same time he wanted to honor his Jewish traditions, he also wanted to become a full American citizen.”

From a very young age, Abrams showed a passion for reading and learning. The family didn’t own a car, so every week, she would walk 30 minutes to the library, take out the limit of four books, walk home, consume the books, and start waiting for her next trip to read more.

In 1973, Abrams and her husband, Lewis, moved to Denver, two graduate students who were both teachers at Hillel Academy. (Her husband spent his entire career at Hillel, retiring recently after 50 years.) After a day of teaching, Lewis would drive Jeanne with the children in the backseat to the University of Colorado Denver for night classes as she worked toward her master’s degree. “It was a partnership,” she says simply. “I could not have done it without support.”

Jeanne Abrams

It was Abrams’ doctoral dissertation as a PhD candidate at the University of Colorado Boulder that opened the doors to her future. Her research took her to the RMJHS and Beck Archives to study the Jewish Consumptives’ Relief Society (JCRS), a tuberculosis sanatorium on the west side of Denver founded in 1904 to treat patients during a time when TB was the leading cause of death among Americans. The hard-working graduate student caught the eye of Belle Marcus z”l, the first director of the RMJHS. When Marcus decided to retire, she encouraged Abrams to apply for the position.

And that is how Abrams came to work full time at the University of Denver, at the same time she was finishing her PhD and raising four children. She laughs when she remembers that her father jokingly asked if he could “pay her not to work.” But Abrams juggled it all with great success.

“One of the effects of being a child of new immigrants who are Holocaust survivors is that you are goal-oriented,” she says. “I was a multi-tasker.”

‘We are historical detectives’

When asked about her achievements, Abrams likes to steer the conversation away from herself to the historic accomplishments of Jews in the Rocky Mountain region and her pride in the Beck Archives.

Her best estimate is that the archive has grown twentyfold since she took over in 1982.

“The Beck Archives is a jewel within the special collections at the University of Denver,” she says. “We have hundreds and hundreds of researchers from around the world coming through these archives every year to work in this varied collection.”

Jeanne Abrams teachingThe archives include historical records showcasing the critical role JCRS and National Jewish Hospital (today’s National Jewish Health) played in the treatment of tuberculosis. There are records of many Jewish organizations in the region—including those of B’nai B’rith going back to 1872—as well as records of individual Jewish citizens, some of them machers and others who lived more ordinary lives.

“Jews were at the forefront of the growth of Colorado economically, politically, socially, culturally, and religiously,” she says. “But if I had to pick one area where they were most outstanding, it was philanthropy.”

The JCRS and National Jewish were the only TB institutions in the state that treated all patients free of charge. Abrams points out that the Jewish tradition of tzedakah led to the founding of multiple medical and humanitarian institutions in Denver, including Rose Hospital. Through her years at DU, she worked with both philanthropic donors and donors of materials from these many organizations to augment the Beck Archives.

Photos from the archives have appeared in national publications, including the New York Times. Archival resources are frequently used in DU classrooms to support academic work in diverse fields, including medical history, media, immigration, social work, and psychology.

Rarely does a week go by without someone coming to the Beck Archives to do genealogical research. For one man in his mid-eighties who was looking for information about his father, the archives revealed evidence that his grandfather had been a TB patient, and that led to further revelations that the man’s father had been a student in the School of Engineering at DU (now The Ritchie School of Engineering and Computer Science). The family was so delighted to uncover their history, they underwrote a significant scholarship and donated family papers to the archives.

“When I teach history, I tell my students ‘We are historical detectives,’” Abrams says. “We use primary sources to read between the lines.”

‘The history of a minority in a diverse country’

In her spare time, this inveterate multi-tasker also writes non-fiction, history books with a focus on America’s founding fathers and mothers. In 2023, Abrams was inducted into the Colorado Authors’ Hall of Fame—alongside, to her delight, that well-known Colorado songwriter and singer John Denver. She has been honored by the Rocky Mountain Jewish Historic Society and has also received the University of Denver Lecturer Award for Superlative Scholarship.

But these awards are far less important to Abrams than her true pride and joy—her family. She has four children, 30 grandchildren (including a set of triplets), and 3 great-grandchildren.

Jeanne Abrams and family at a retirement dinner

She leaves the RMJHS and the Beck Archives far different than she found it, a robust treasure of historical material that has been used for major local exhibits. In 2019, History Colorado opened the Ballentine Gallery with the exhibit drawn from the Beck Archives: “A Legacy of Healing: Jewish Leadership in Colorado’s Health Care.” More than 6,000 people went through the exhibit before it closed.

Abrams also led a partnership with the Denver Public Library to host the American Jewish Historical Society’s exhibit “From Haven to Home: 350 Years of Jewish Life in America.”

For 42 years, in her quiet but determined way, Abrams has preserved the history of Colorado’s Jewish community, one artifact, photo, and document at a time, educating people about the major contributions Jews have made in the United States and Colorado.

“We want to make people aware that Jews have been loyal contributing citizens from the earliest days of this country,” she says. “Part of the mission of the Beck Archives is to preserve the history of a minority in a diverse country. Denver began in 1859, and from the beginning, there was a Denver Jewish community.”

And the rest, as Jeanne Abrams has worked so hard to show us, is history.