Documenting, Sharing, and Learning from Jewish Life During the Pandemic

The Council of American Jewish Museums and George Mason University’s Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media Receive Grants for Major Archiving Project Led by Lippman Kanfer Foundation for Living Torah

January 27, 2021 — The Council of American Jewish Museums (CAJM) and George Mason University’s Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media (RRCHNM) are launching two new collecting initiatives with support from a group of Jewish funders, the Chronicling Funder Collaborative, to document diverse Jewish experiences of the pandemic. The Rosenzweig Center received a grant to create a web portal that will serve as a digital content hub reflecting Jewish life during this time. The grant to CAJM enables it to partner with 18 member institutions to lead a broad-based oral history collecting initiative.

The Funder Collaborative is composed of Lippman Kanfer Foundation for Living Torah, Jim Joseph Foundation, Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Philanthropies, and The Russell Berrie Foundation.

The web portal, led by the Rosenzweig Center in collaboration with Hebrew Theological College (HTC), will coordinate, catalog, and share digital content from institutions chronicling life in American Jewish communities during the pandemic. This effort builds upon the American Jewish Life digital collection developed last year by RRCHNM in collaboration  with six Jewish partner organizations.

“Collectors, researchers, and teachers are synergizing their efforts,” explained Zev Eleff, chief academic officer of HTC. “We all understand that this is a pivotal teaching and learning moment, freighted with so much meaning for all kinds of students.”

Beginning in March 2021, individuals will be able to find relevant collections through the portal and easily contribute materials to a range of collecting institutions in different parts of the U.S.  Libraries, archives, researchers, educators, and others will be able to access all content at no cost and communicate and share content with each other.

“The Jewish community’s response to this historic moment warrants careful curating and documentation in one centralized location,” says Jessica Mack of George Mason University’s Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media. “Contrary to what many think, 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.”

CAJM’s oral history collecting campaign expands its efforts to record Jewish stories from the pandemic with its member museums.  For this new phase of grant-funded work, CAJM will partner with 18 collecting repositories across the country—from Los Angeles, Iowa, New York, Florida, and Portland, Oregon. The recording partners will utilize TheirStory—a web-based video interview platform that allows museums to record their communities’ personal accounts from their computers.  The TheirStory platform works in-tandem with Aviary, a cloud-based platform that enhances collection management and preservation functionality using cutting-edge features.

“For organizations that do the work of Jewish history, this is a defining chapter,”  says Melissa Martens Yaverbaum, Executive Director of the Council of American Jewish Museums. “The pandemic has rearranged many aspects of Jewish life—from the holidays to healthcare, mourning, milestones, the work of social justice, and the ways we create community.  Our grassroots efforts aim to reflect the breadth of the Jewish community and a myriad Jewish experiences from the pandemic era. In sharing personal stories, we’re laying the groundwork for a more inclusive future.”

Efforts to elevate Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) are integral to both the web portal and oral history collecting campaign. Both entities seek to engage populations that historically have not been included in this type of collecting and interpretation, lending valuable insights into very different Jewish pandemic experiences. Both projects will work with DEI consultants and an advisory board in approaching this work with an inclusive lens and strategy.

“Holding space for diversity, equity, and inclusion is essential to the work of both these projects,” says Aaron Dorfman of Lippman Kanfer Foundation for Living Torah. “If we want these platforms to be truly useful to researchers and institutions in the future—and if we really want the community to learn from this moment—we must capture experiences representing the breadth of the Jewish community, particularly its often marginalized members.”

The Rosenzweig Center and CAJM will coordinate closely with each other as they develop both platforms.

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Since 1994, the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media has created websites and other digital media with the goal of democratizing history for scholarly, public, and educational audiences. RRCHNM brings together scholars, web developers and designers, and graduate and undergraduate students to accomplish that mission. In addition to democratizing history for the over two million people who visit its websites each year, RRCHNM is passionate about enabling the work of other institutions, especially through its ability to develop websites and software, host technical infrastructure, and manage projects and grants. RRCHNM is a research center at George Mason University, the largest public research university in Virginia and one of the most diverse universities in the United States.

The Council of American Jewish Museums (CAJM) is an association of institutions and individuals committed to enriching American and Jewish culture and enhancing the value of Jewish museums to their communities. It offers programs, networking, and learning opportunities to the Jewish-museum field, and highlights issues pertaining to the presentation and preservation of Jewish culture. It is the leading forum for Jewish museums in North America.