The Jewish Women’s Archive (JWA) is in the business of identifying the extraordinary in the ordinary lives of Jewish women. It is a mandate that plays out in the organization’s commitment to capturing Jewish women’s stories in both written and oral forms. The oral history component is particularly important to JWA’s executive director, Judith Rosenbaum, who has been at the organization’s helm since the fall of 2014.
In a recent interview with JewishBoston, Rosenbaum pointed out that “it became very clear to us that an important part of the work we were going to have to do in documenting Jewish women’s lives would be through oral history. Not that many actual documents have been saved and there are a lot of amazing women who have not been recognized.”
To address the ongoing omissions in Jewish women’s history, Rosenbaum and her staff have created a new program called Story Aperture. Supported by a grant from The Covenant Foundation, Story Aperture intends to build on JWA’s work in oral history to capture and record personal stories shared through short conversations.
As with many of JWA’s projects, the endeavor taps into the power of the organization’s 2 million users around the world. “We wanted to engage the various audiences who use our resources as partners in collecting histories,” said Rosenbaum.
From its founding in 1996, one of JWA’s challenges has been to work with Jewish communities to capture women’s stories. In its early days, JWA focused a great deal of its energy on gathering community-based oral histories in Boston, Baltimore and Seattle. Rosenbaum noted: “We did a lot of community-building work in the early 2000s on doing long oral histories of women whose stories spanned the 20th century. We collected those stories and created exhibits based on them.”
The approach, however, was labor intensive, making it impractical for JWA to expand the program in multiple cities. In response, the organization created an oral history guide for the express purpose of enabling communities to mine local oral histories. The guide has been used widely by families, individuals and communities. But Rosenbaum feels it is now time for technology to play a more pivotal role in collecting information. “We all hold powerful recording technology in our back pockets, which makes it easier to engage people all over the world to contribute all sorts of oral histories to our archives,” she said. Accordingly, JWA is working to develop an app that anyone can use to capture the stories of the women in their lives in an accessible way.
JWA is turning to the young women participating in its Rising Voices Fellowship to expand the program. Now going into its fourth year as a national program, the competitive fellowship brings together teens in grades 10-12 from across the country. It’s a pluralistic group that is mentored and trained to be part of and eventually lead larger, public conversations about Jewish women. The Hadassah Foundation is the lead funder of the program. “Data is out there,” said Rosenbaum, “about women’s voices being excluded from places like newspaper opinion pages and other public forums. How do we work with young women so they see themselves as needing to take on that role, and have the skills to do so?”
Part of the answer is to give these women the tools to research their personal histories. Many of them have living grandmothers or even great-grandmothers who are rich sources of historical information. To lower the barrier in taking an oral history from the older women in her family, a Rising Voices fellow came up with the idea of JWA featuring a question of the week with the goal of acquiring oral histories in short segments. The JWA story-collecting app is expected to be up and running by the end of Story Aperture’s second year.
In the meantime, Story Aperture’s pilot year will feature oral history workshops in which cohorts of all ages and various backgrounds will learn how to collect Jewish women’s stories. With its new backing from The Covenant Foundation, JWA can offer the training for free. “The plan,” said Rosenbaum, “is to seed our collection with information that comes out of these oral history workshops.”
The challenge of collecting a wide swath of Jewish women’s history raises the question of how to curate the information. “I always tell my staff,” noted Rosenbaum, “that everybody has a story and every story matters. But not every story matters to everybody. That’s the unspoken part.” But Rosenbaum sees an opportunity to “look at the material together and figure out what it says as a whole. We need the full story—made up of many individual stories—to see the larger picture. We can offer material to scholars to analyze and curate themselves. The point is that everyone’s story matters and adds a dimension to the larger picture.”
As Story Aperture’s first year begins, Rosenbaum expects that it will herald a new moment in Jewish feminist scholarship. After all, stories make up history, and as JWA’s work has showcased, connecting the two yields extraordinary and rich narratives of Jewish women that might have been otherwise lost, and that have the power to change our understanding of the past and present.
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