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Jewish Women's Archive

by Judith Rosenbaum

Founded in 1995 on the premise that the history of Jewish women—celebrated and unheralded alike—must be considered systematically and creatively in order to produce a balanced and complete historical record, the Jewish Women's Archive took as its mission “to uncover, chronicle and transmit the rich legacy of Jewish women and their contributions to our families and communities, to our people and our world.”

While Jewish women have played crucial roles in the cultivation and continuity of their communities, their efforts have typically gone undocumented or are buried within an historical record that privileges men’s stories and accomplishments. Deemed historically insignificant, much source material on Jewish women had been discarded, while material that archives have preserved is often difficult to locate, catalogued within the collections of husbands and fathers. Even in the field of American women’s history, the tendency to disregard women’s Jewish identity as noteworthy biographical information has often rendered Jewish women invisible. The Jewish Women’s Archive insists on the importance of Jewish women’s historical legacy and the need to make this legacy accessible, developing unique and innovative tools and programs with which to do so.

Gail Twersky Reimer (b. 1950) founded the Jewish Women's Archive at a time when attention to women within Jewish Studies was growing. Other concurrent initiatives included the groundbreaking encyclopedia, Jewish Women in America, published in 1997 and the work of the Women’s Caucus of the Association for Jewish Studies. JWA also benefited from increasing interest within the field of women’s history in women’s archives. Leading scholars in the fields of Jewish Studies and Women’s History, many of whom joined JWA’s Academic Advisory Council, participated from the outset in defining this effort to remedy the lack of available information on Jewish women’s lives and accomplishments and to develop programs that promote the use of material about Jewish women. Important foundations in both the Jewish and non-Jewish communities, including the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Dorot Foundation, the Charles H. Revson Foundation, and the Covenant Foundation, also recognized the significance of JWA’s mission and supported the new project.

Founded during the period of the Internet’s rapid expansion in the 1990s and presciently seizing on its promise, the Jewish Women’s Archive has pioneered the use of digital tools in the creation of a twenty-first century archive. Responding to the changing use of libraries and sources in the age of the Internet, JWA allows researchers to find and use information in new and creative ways through powerful search engines and multimedia exhibits, and provides researchers with access to primary sources previously available only to scholars. JWA’s first major undertaking, the Virtual Archive, provided a portal database to the significant holdings on Jewish women in United States and Canadian repositories, allowing researchers to locate materials for analysis in the context of related records.

From the outset, the Jewish Women’s Archive demonstrated a commitment to creating an inclusive history. Concerned with how to collect and present the stories of all Jewish women—from politicians to homemakers, athletes to artists, grandmothers to granddaughters—in a compelling and complete manner, JWA incorporated oral history into several of its programs, capturing the lives of ordinary (and often disenfranchised) people who do not usually leave written records. Building on the expertise developed through its oral history projects, JWA published In Our Own Voices, a how-to guide for conducting life history interviews with American Jewish women. Designed for use by individuals, as well as community groups, the guide invites readers to become "makers of history" by using oral history to capture and preserve the stories of their mothers and grandmothers, teachers and colleagues, community members and friends. In a further effort to demonstrate the importance of creating inclusive historical records, the Jewish Women’s Archive launched its first oral history project including equal representation of men’s and women’s stories in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

The Archive has also democratized its own collecting process by including historical actors – both well-known and unknown – in determining what materials are archived. In the online exhibit Jewish Women and the Feminist Revolution, for example, JWA tells the story of Jewish women and feminism through artifacts and stories contributed by the activists themselves, rather than through a synthetic narrative or a curator-driven collection. In Katrina’s Jewish Voices, JWA used interactive online tools to collect stories, images, and reflections about the New Orleans and Gulf Coast Jewish communities before and after Hurricane Katrina from people who had personal testimony and artifacts to share.

The Archive’s education and outreach projects also reflect its commitment to inclusive history. As it works to uncover and create historical material on Jewish women, JWA places emphasis on giving people access to this material. An early and well-known example of JWA’s educational outreach is the Women of Valor online exhibit and posters, which illustrate the Archive’s innovative use of primary sources on Jewish women and make visible Jewish women’s faces and accomplishments. JWA also develops curricular materials for Jewish educators, such as Go & Learn, a free online resource that models the use of individual primary documents by providing three distinct lesson plans based on one primary source. Through community workshops and its competitive biennial Institute for Educators, JWA offers professional development opportunities for teachers throughout North America to investigate themes in Jewish women’s history, examine primary source documents and oral histories, explore multimedia resources, and develop strategies for using the material with students.

In 2007, the Jewish Women’s Archive turned to documentary film as another vehicle for storytelling, highlighting Jewish female entertainers whose achievements often go unrecognized. The award-winning Making Trouble profiles the struggles and successes of Molly Picon, Fanny Brice, Sophie Tucker, Joan Rivers, Gilda Radner, and Wendy Wasserstein.

Working in partnership with historians, archivists and educators to explore the role of Jewish women in areas such as the arts, education, community activism, family and home life, the labor force, politics and religious activities, the Jewish Women’s Archive continues to expand its role in the preservation and transmission of Jewish women’s history.

How to cite this page

Rosenbaum, Judith. "Jewish Women's Archive." Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 1 March 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on July 23, 2014) <http://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/jewish-womens-archive>.

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