Collecting These Times: RRCHNM Gathers and Interprets COVID-19’s Impact on American Judaism

by Anne Reynolds

From the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media (RRCHNM) has worked to document the ways in which the virus has impacted religious communities through its Pandemic Religion digital collection. As part of this effort, American Jewish Life launched in July 2020 to document and interpret the experiences of Jewish individuals and communities.

An interfaith Chavurah made up of members of Congregation Beth Or in Maple Glen, PA celebrates the fourth night of Hanukkah together over Zoom. A pandemic didn’t stop this Chavurah’s 20+ year tradition!

Now, the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Philanthropies, the Jim Joseph Foundation, Lippman Kanfer Foundation for Living Torah, and the Russell Berrie Foundation have collectively awarded RRCHNM $107,000 for a project called Collecting These Times. These funds have allowed the center to rapidly build out a web portal for collecting materials from American Jews about their community’s experiences during the COVID-19 pandemic. For this effort, the center has partnered with the Breman Museum, the Capital Jewish Museum, the Council of American Jewish Museums, Hebrew Theological College, the Library of the Jewish Theological Seminary, and Prizmah: Center for Jewish Day Schools.

“The Jewish community’s response to this historic moment warrants careful curating and documentation in one centralized location,” said Jessica Mack, one of the principal investigators for Collecting These Times. The project is a hub, she explained, that allows visitors to access a number of different collections. “As of right now, we have over 70 collections listed, and the list will continue to grow,” she added.

Mack is a postdoctoral fellow at RRCHNM. She, along with associate professor of history Lincoln Mullen and history and religious studies professor John Turner, are the co-directors of the project. “In addition to staff at RRCHNM, this project will enable us to involve a number of our most capable undergraduate and graduate students in this humanities response to the pandemic,” said Turner. “It is also gratifying to build relationships between Mason and these many Jewish partner organizations to preserve the history of this pandemic as it happens.” One such partner is a near neighbor in Washington, DC, the Capital Jewish Museum.

The projects leaders emphasized that Collecting These Times seeks to reflect the diversity of Jewish traditions in the United States.

“One of the priorities of the project is to include and collaborate with a diverse group of individuals from across different Jewish communities, including those that have been historically underrepresented in collection efforts,” she said. “Diversity, equity, and inclusion trainings and strategies will guide this work.”

To achieve this level of inclusion, the team hopes to spread the word about the site and encourage community members to document and add their materials to the collections. In February, Mack presented the project to Mason colleagues as part of a panel organized with the Center for Humanities Research. Above all, the project team hopes that the site will be a resource for teaching and learning about this time.

“Visit the site, explore it, get a sense for the different materials that are there,” she suggested. “Then, even for folks who aren’t going to contribute, or aren’t part of a Jewish community, it’s a way to learn about the changes that have taken place during the pandemic and with this community in particular.”

The center hopes that Collecting These Times will serve as a lasting repository for information about these very unusual times.

“Contrary to what many think,” said Mack, “digital content does not last forever unless we make efforts to preserve it. With the Collaborative’s generous support, we will gather materials showing how the community adapted at this time—and share it in one accessible, central platform. Future Jewish community researchers and leaders will be able to learn about the rapid transformation of Jewish life during this time.”