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.”

Saying Goodbye — Kim Nguyen

Have you ever looked at one of our websites and asked yourself what kind of design firm RRCHNM uses? For a large number of our projects, that design firm has been Kim Nguyen, our long-time in house web designer. Since 2011, Kim has been the person we all turn to for questions about everything from color compatibility, to making our work accessible to all, to how to insure that our sites look good across multiple platforms. Along the way, Kim has helped professionalize our design efforts, especially through the application of best practices in all aspects of design.

Unlike some of our other departing colleagues, who found their way to us through their experiences as students at Mason or through personal contacts with RRCHNM staffers, Kim found us the old fashioned way — through a job ad. She had just graduated from Virginia Tech with a BFA in Visual Communications Design and had been working as an independent design professional for several years. Then she saw our ad. “I found the center’s mission and project descriptions appealing. Based off the websites and digital tools I used in my own undergraduate experience, educators in the humanities felt like an underserved audience when it came to good design and modern web practices,” she said recently.

Her initial assignment was to build themes for Omeka and since then she has been responsible for almost every design innovation for that project, as well as many others at the Center. While she hopes no one looks at the very first Omeka theme she built, Kim is justifiably proud of the clean lines and dynamic look and feel of her work.

In addition to teaching us all how to be better at thinking about design and usability, over her 10 years at RRCHNM Kim has also acquired many new and valuable skills, often because knowing a thing made it possible for her to solve one or several problems. “I’ve come to use static site generators like Hugo and Jekyll, accrue a lot more experience with scripting and PHP, improve my understanding of best practices for web accessibility, all while continuing to perform in my primary role as a front-end designer. RRCHNM has been a great environment for learning outside of my comfort zone.”

If you’ve ever sat next to Kim at our large co-working table, you likely have noticed that her keyboard looks just a little non-standard. That’s because Kim is also a hacker (in the best sense) of physical devices, including 3-D printing herself a keyboard that works better than the original and is much, much more colorful than those black keys you’ve been tapping away on all day. When she leaves us at the end of this week, we will of course miss her professionalism and her innovative work most of all, but we’ll also miss her playful thinking and the ways that her creativity manifests itself not only on a website, but on everyday objects as well. We wish Kim well in her new role at the Corporation for Digital Scholarship and can’t wait to see how being able to devote herself 100% to one project will lead to new and exciting results.

Saying Goodbye — John Flatness

If you’ve ever gone to the Omeka forums looking for help with a vexing problem, big or small, with your Omeka-based website, there’s a pretty good chance that the response you received was from John Flatness (jflatnes in the forums). What you might not know is that the person who just gave you excellent advice and a solution to your problem also happens to be the lead developer on the project. John has worked at RRCHNM on the Omeka project since 2010 and has been the lead developer for many of those years, guiding the team of developers through multiple versions of Omeka Classic and now Omeka S.

Like so many of our staff and students, John first encountered the work of the Center through a class project–in his case in the computer science program at Virginia Tech. That class project was to allow an Omeka site to expose its metadata using the OAI-PMH protocol and somehow or other his work caught the eye of our then creative lead, Jeremy Boggs, and later Jim Safley. Before long, Jeremy and Jim were recruiting John to work on projects at the Center and so John became a part of the RRCHNM team even before he graduated from college in 2010.

Many of the most important innovations in the Omeka platforms are the result of John’s work or of his leadership. As proud as he is of those plug-ins and other features, what John is proudest of is the longevity of the Omeka project and the role he’s played in that persistence. Over the years, he and the Omeka team have faced skepticism about whether the project will continue–skepticism rooted in the experience of many digital humanists who have seen worthy projects come and go. As John said recently, “The pattern of promising projects that faded away as grad students moved on or funding dried up was pretty familiar, and we occasionally faced skepticism along those lines from our own users: a printout of a years-old forum post wondering if we were still active has long adorned my office door.” Instead, John’s leadership has helped to insure that the project continues to grow and prosper.

At the same time, John is also very proud of what Omeka has allowed its users to accomplish: “Omeka is ultimately about the projects it enables people to create and so it’s really those that are the greatest testament, whether its the Center’s own work, student projects, sites hosted on Omeka.net, or just the individual goals of the myriad of mailing list and forum posters looking for help.”

Those who know John know that he has never sought credit for his vital role in the Omeka project. Instead of credit, what makes him happy is seeing new projects that have the tagline “Powered by Omeka” at the bottom of the page.

Those who have worked with John all these years at RRCHNM also know him for another reason. A daily tradition at the Center, until Covid disrupted our lives, was an online trivia challenge. Pausing his work for a few minutes, John would lead us through an often bewildering choice of categories–some of them truly trivial–always assuring us that our answers were “really close” or “almost right”, even if they rarely were. Little things like that trivia challenge often provide the glue that helps hold a team together. In his quiet way, John always made sure that everyone sitting at our big central work table felt part of the team, even if all they could contribute was a wildly incorrect guess to a trivia question.

We wish John all the best in his new job at the Corporation for Digital Scholarship and thank him for all of his contributions, especially those that you might have missed if you weren’t paying close attention.

Saying Goodbye — Ken Albers

Sixteen years ago, Ken Albers was a new doctoral student in history here at George Mason University. Part of his program included being assigned as a graduate research assistant at what was then known at the Center for History and New Media. In those days we were located in the beautiful Pohick Module, which, truth be told, was anything but beautiful. There are no longer any photos of Pohick online, but this image will give you the general feel for the trailer we were in when Ken started.

As unpleasant as that old trailer was, the CHNM that Ken encountered when he joined us was a place where almost anything was possible, where any good idea in digital history could be pursued. In Ken’s case, the first thing he worked on was our original digital collecting project, ECHO, and his first DH task was writing annotations for the websites being added to the ECHO collection. Before long, Ken had transitioned to full time work at the Center. “As I continued to learn more and more about the mechanical end of digital history, I realized I could have a bigger impact on the field through my work on projects like Omeka than I could completing my doctorate,” he says of his choice.

That choice meant that he was a key player in the start up of the Omeka project and made it possible for him to play a leading role in the Mozilla Digital Memory Bank, a digital archive preserving the early history of Firefox, Thunderbird, and the Mozilla community. A less well known, but very important project that Ken played a key role in (so important that even Ken may have forgotten it) is the George Mason Basketball Digital Memory Bank, which he and another graduate student pulled together in one evening following Mason’s victory that sent the team to the Final Four in 2006.

Of all his many accomplishments at RRCHNM, Ken is proudest of the work he has done on the Omeka project: “I think it’s the project that adheres most closely to RRCHNM’s mission to democratize history.” While everyone who worked with Ken over the years will remember his contributions to the Omeka project, they will also remember him as someone who helped ensure that the working environment at the Center was fun and relaxed, even as it was innovative and productive. Among the many things we’ll miss about Ken is that sense of humor and his easy going approach to even the hard things.

Along with Jim Safley, Ken is one of the last people at RRCHNM who still remember working with our founder, Roy Rosenzweig. Those of us fortunate enough to have worked with Roy all have our favorite stories. Ken’s goes like this: “As my first semester at CHNM wound down, Roy asked me into his office one day. I didn’t know Roy too well, yet, and was slightly nervous as to what it might be about. But he simply was curious what classes I was planning to register for in the spring, and offered some helpful guidance on what I might take and who I might want to work with. I was really struck with Roy, the very busy director of CHNM, carving out part of his day to help a new student find his footing. I immediately felt more valued and part of the team as a result, and I’ve always carried that lesson with me.”

Years from now, when people who were fortunate enough to work with Ken think back about their time with him, one of the things they will surely remember is how hard Ken worked to make sure that everyone around him felt valued and part of the team. We’re all going to miss him and can’t wait to see what he accomplishes in his new job at the Corporation for Digital Scholarship.

Saying Goodbye — Jim Safley

In 2002, Kelly Schrum, the long-time director of educational projects at RRCHNM, told a student in Mason’s BA program in applied history that he should apply for a job that was opening up at the Center. That student was Jim Safley and until that moment, he had assumed he would find a job at a traditional archive or library. “I never considered a career in digital humanities given my technical inexperience, but I couldn’t turn down the prospect of working with Roy Rosenzweig,” Jim said of that moment 19 years ago.

We had recently launched the September 11 Digital Archive and right out of the gate Jim was put in charge of trying to make sense of the rapidly growing collection of digital objects being deposited into the archive and implementing standards for organizing and preserving the collection. Little did he know when he started how important that work would become. When the Library of Congress decided to make the Archive the Library’s first major acquisition of born-digital content related to the attacks of September 11, the standards Jim helped create became a template for future work by scholars working in digital collecting.

When a team of researchers at RRCHNM began work on Omeka, it was only natural that Jim would play a leading role in that effort. Since 2007, Jim has been responsible for some of the most important aspects of Omeka, work that he is justifiably very proud of. Thinking about his contributions to the Omeka project, Jim said, “I’m most proud of the planning and development work that I’ve done for Omeka because it represents an intentional, collective effort to solve common problems in the humanities. Knowing that we recognized these problems early in my career, it’s satisfying to have been a part of a mature solution that moves the field forward.”

In addition to his vital contributions to the Omeka project, Jim has been the person we have all turned to for questions about metadata and new ways to think about solutions to vexing problems. Anyone who has had the privilege of working with Jim would tell you that he is passionate about whatever he is working on, that he is unfailingly kind, and that he goes out of his way to find the good in any idea that someone comes up with.

Jim is part of a small group of RRCHNM staff and faculty who still remember working with our founder, Roy Rosenzweig. Remembering Roy, Jim says, “I owe much to Roy, not only for his passion to democratize history, but for his dedication to provide the conditions necessary to develop as a digital humanist. I could not have endured so long at the Center without the positive, collegial work culture that Roy started.”

We will miss Jim’s talents, his collegiality, and his unwavering commitment to the mission Roy first articulated in 1994. Through all the changes that have happened at RRCHNM since 2002, Jim has been a steady, constant presence. We wish him all the best and thank him for everything he has accomplished over the past 19 years.

New Directions at RRCHNM

Fifteen years ago a team of faculty, students, and developers here at RRCHNM began an ambitious new project. They wanted to create a browser plug-in that would allow users to capture and save things they were looking at online, but not just as a simple save of those items. They wanted to capture the metadata associated with those pages, images, datasets, .pdf files, and everything else the user was looking at, and to save it in ways that were searchable, shareable, and would allow all that data to be organized for research, writing, and teaching. In short, they wanted to kill the 3×5 card that had been the ubiquitous tool of scholars and students in the humanities (and lots of other disciplines) for decades. The result was Zotero, possibly the most successful piece of open source software ever to come out of a humanities center.

The following year, another team at RRCHNM launched an equally ambitious project–this time to create an open source content management system that smaller museums, libraries, historic sites, archives, and individual scholars could use to present their collections, their research, their data, and their analysis online without having to resort to the expensive licenses and technological and staff overhead required by the existing CMS options. The result was Omeka, now one of the most popular content management systems used in the humanities (and lots of other disciplines).

In 2013, RRCHNM spun off these two successful projects into a new non-profit corporation, the Corporation for Digital Scholarship (CDS) to manage the growth and development of Zotero and Omeka, and to provide a funding stream for our Center. In the years since 2013, RRCHNM and CDS have worked closely together on these two and several other projects, including PressForward and Tropy.

Between 2013 and 2019, the faculty researchers leading the Zotero and Omeka projects moved on to new and exciting jobs at other universities or to the National Endowment for the Humanities. Their departures meant that the people leading our work in software development were all employed elsewhere. Because our work these days at RRCHNM is focused more on history education, computational history, public digital history, and the education of our graduate students–all fields of endeavor that have been at the heart of our mission since our founding in 1994–it was time to say goodbye to software development.

This week we will complete the transition of that software development work, a transition that began when our colleagues leading these projects began to take other jobs. We are saying goodbye to five of our longest serving staff members who are moving to CDS so that they can devote all of their energy to the continued growth and improvement of Omeka and Zotero. Over the next several days we will share our thanks for all their accomplishments here at RRCHNM and some favorite moments from their years with us. It’s always hard to say goodbye to friends and colleagues, but we know they will do great things in their new roles at CDS.

In the coming weeks we will also share new directions we are taking here at RRCHNM. For now, though, we want to focus on our friends and colleagues who are leaving us at the end of the week.

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.”

(more…)

PhD Students Brannan and Hubai Accepted as HASTAC Scholars

Two PhD students in GMU’s Department of History and Art History, Laura Brannan and Janine Hubai, have been accepted as HASTAC Scholars. The HASTAC scholarship program supports graduate students across many colleges and universities who are working at the intersection of technology and the arts, humanities, and sciences. The scholars accepted to the program join a cohort across the more than two hundred institutions that participate worldwide.

Brannan and Hubai are both working on a digital project around Black Lives Matters and the racial reckoning of the United States. They have worked with GMU’s Professor Spencer Crew, interim director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, on building a digital history project that will help contextualize the racial history of statues that are currently contested. Their project focuses in particular on Monument Avenue in Richmond, Virginia—one of the nation’s hubs for protests around Confederate statues—as well as on statues of Ulysses S. Grant. This work in progress will be part of their participation in the HASTAC program, and both will also have opportunities to extend their professional and interdisciplinary connections.

Murali’s “Visualizing the Interwoven World” Receives Grants from AIIS

Dr. Deepthi Murali has received a Digital India Learning Scholarship grant from the American Institute of Indian Studies in support of a new digital art history project. Visualizing the Interwoven World of Eighteenth-Century Indian Textiles will collate and analyze more than five hundred images and associated metadata of South Indian textiles from publicly accessible museum collections to produce a searchable aggregated database on these textiles, the first of its kind. The project will also publish interpretive results on patterns of use, circulation routes of textiles and merchant communities, and centers of production. Digital output will include data visualization in the form of interactive maps, visual charts, blogs, and audio recordings. This is a pilot project for a larger born-digital project on the material histories of Indian Ocean World with a focus on South Asia. The work for this project will take place over 2020 and 2021.

After receiving her PhD in Art History from the University of Illinois at Chicago, Dr. Murali joined RRCHNM as a postdoc. She is an expert on the history of the art in India, and she has contributed to a number of digital art history and digital history projects at RRCHNM and other institutions, including World History Commons, the Masala History Podcast, the Humanities Without Walls Consortium Podcast, and the Consolation Prize Podcast.

An image of a textile from India

Hanging Depicting a European Conflict in South India, before 1763, southeast India (for the British market), Cotton, plain weave (drawn and painted, mordant and resist dyed), 296.5×261.6cm, The Metropolitan Museum of Art (accession no. 2014.88).

40,000+ Documents from Religious Bodies Census Digitized Nearly a Century Later

Today the American Religious Ecologies project is releasing the initial version of a website that makes available tens of thousands of documents from the 1926 U.S. Census of Religious Bodies. These schedules, or forms, describe religious congregations from the early twentieth century from a wide range of religious traditions. These documents are freely available to scholars, students, and local historians, who can browse or search for them by location or by religious identification.

For the first half of the twentieth century, the U.S. Census Bureau collected remarkably detailed information about American religious institutions. The Bureau undertook this survey every ten years, from 1906 until 1946. In 1926, the Bureau tabulated 232,154 congregations, including groups such as Roman Catholics, Baptists, the African Methodist Episcopal Church, Jews, and over a dozen relatively new Pentecostal denominations. For each congregation, the Bureau collected a schedule (or form) detailing information such as its membership by sex and age, its buildings and finances, and its location.

The schedules from the other religious bodies censuses have been lost or destroyed. Only the schedules from the 1926 census survive. These schedules are a treasure trove of information, the single richest historical source of data about American congregations. Until today, however, these documents have been available only in an uncatalogued collection housed at the National Archives.

With the aid of a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, historians on the American Religious Ecologiesproject have been photographing and cataloging this collection. The initial release of the collection features schedules from over 40,000 congregations across the country. Users can find schedules by religious identification, by state and county, or by browsing them on a map. The project staff will continue to add schedules to the website on a rolling basis, as well as eventually adding transcriptions of the data contained in the schedules. All materials created by the project are either in the public domain or released under an open-access license, and they are thus free for use by scholars, educators and students, and local historians and genealogists.

For additional background information, you can read about the history of the Religious Bodies censuses, about what we have learned about the Census Bureau’s efforts to count religion, or about what you can learn from a Religious Bodies census schedule.

Screenshot of the website that hosts the digitized census documents

Cross-posted from the American Religious Ecologies blog.