By Aaron Dorfman, Stacie Cherner, and Lisa Eisen
Read the full RFP for Chronicling COVID-19 and the American Jewish Community here. We look forward to you joining us in coordinating and democratizing efforts to record our community’s response to the pandemic.
When the Romans laid siege to Jerusalem in 70 CE, they threatened the very future of Judaism. The sacrificial Temple – the center of Jewish life – was on the verge of ruin, and there was no clear alternative for how and where Jews would express their deepest commitments.
In a brazen move, one of the leaders of the Jewish community in Jerusalem, Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai, faked his death and escaped the besieged city in a coffin. Once outside the city walls, he approached the Roman general Vespasian and persuaded him – by promising that Vespasian would become Emperor – to let Rabbi Yohanan establish a center of Jewish learning in a city called Yavneh. Vespasian agreed and, although Jerusalem and the Temple were destroyed, it was in Yavneh that the early rabbis developed the rituals, practices, and norms that would shape the next 2,000 years of Jewish life.
Since then, Jews throughout the centuries have consistently turned to this story of Rabbi Yohanan and Yavneh to learn lessons and draw inspiration for how they might respond to the crises they face. This would never have been possible if the early rabbis did not record this tale in the Talmud and other foundational Jewish texts. Their foresight in capturing that moment in history for posterity continues to pay dividends.
Once again, we are facing an unprecedented crisis. The COVID pandemic has upended Jewish life from synagogue services, to communal meals, to programming by Jewish organizations, and so much more. One essential component of our response must be to learn from the ways in which Jews, like Rabbi Yohanan, reacted to earlier crises. But as the enduring legacy of that story itself demonstrates, an equally important part of our response must be to capture our own stories so that future generations can learn from them as well.
That is why Lippman Kanfer Foundation for Living Torah, the Jim Joseph Foundation, and the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, have established a Funder Collaborative to document the ways in which people are transforming Jewish life to adapt to the pandemic. The Collaborative convened (virtually) an Advisory Committee of 11 historians, archivists, librarians, social scientists and museum professionals from May through July. Together, they developed a four-part plan for chronicling this moment in history, which we’re excited to share with you and to invite you to participate in by responding to our RFP for any of the following projects:
1. Build a centralized online portal for chronicling efforts
The version of the story about Rabbi Yohanan and Vespasian outlined above is just one of many recorded in the Jewish canon, each containing differences that have at times led to confusion. By creating a centralized online portal for existing chronicling efforts in the Jewish community – including the National Library of Israel’s COVID-19 Jewish Ephemera Collection and the American Jewish Life project, as well as the many other efforts identified by the Collaborative’s landscape map – we hope to facilitate more coordination and collaboration, and simultaneously avoid duplication of effort and missed opportunities. As Michelle Chesner, the Norman E. Alexander Librarian for Jewish Studies at Columbia University and a member of the Advisory Committee explained, “Access to information can be difficult for researchers when similar collecting initiatives are siloed – these silos create overlap, gaps, and multiple access points. Working with this group to create a framework for a unified website for collecting initiatives felt like a critical piece in ensuring that the multifaceted effort in collecting our current moment would be both comprehensive and accessible.”
2. Develop a grassroots Jewish community collecting campaign
Part of the reason that Rabbi Yohanan’s story has received so much attention is that not much else from that critical moment in history has survived. But imagine what an even richer tapestry we would be able to draw on if more artifacts from the destruction of the Temple and its aftermath had been preserved. We want to ensure that this moment in history is different. That is why the Collaborative is seeking a partner for a broad-based collecting initiative for Jewish families, small social groups, and individuals to share their experiences of COVID-19 through objects and images. The intent of the project is to provide an online tool and meaningful framework for members of the Jewish community to dialogue around objects and images that illuminate their experiences during the pandemic, and to give texture to the stories that are being captured through other efforts.
3. Study how Jewish history has privileged some groups over others
Whose story gets told in the historical record has significant implications; and that’s why we’re committed to making all these chronicling efforts as inclusive as possible. Not all Jews were able or wanted to flee Jerusalem for Yavneh, and many others were dealing with other significant issues at the time. But for the most part, those dissenting voices, and their differing opinions and experiences, were not recorded in rabbinic literature. Instead we’ve had to piece them together, often poorly, from other sources. The more we understand marginalized experiences, the better off we all are; and Jewish history is no exception. That’s why we’re seeking a researcher to produce a report reflecting on the ways in which Jewish history – through the lens of this current moment – has been written that result in the inclusion of some Jewish populations and the exclusion of others in the historical narrative.
4. Convene leaders of underrepresented Jewish communities and archivists/historians to help democratize the collection and archiving process
In addition to the research outlined above, which will deepen our understanding of how and why certain groups’ experiences have been marginalized, we also want to actively ensure that this time around, more are included – that we do not have only a singular account of this moment in history. We are therefore looking to bring together archivists, historians, and leaders of underrepresented Jewish communities including, but not limited to: Black Jews; Latinx Jews; Asian Jews; adopted Jews; bi-racial, mixed-race, and multi-ethnic Jews; post-1965 Jewish immigrants; Sepharadic Jews; Israeli Jews; Middle Eastern Jews; Russian-speaking Jews; LGBTQ Jews; Jews by choice; and Jews with disabilities. As Dr. Analucía Lopezrevoredo, Founder & Executive Director of Jewtina y Co. and a member of the Advisory Committee, explained, “The proposed convening is an opportunity to bring together leaders from underrepresented and marginalized Jewish communities to share their methods for documenting their communities’ experiences, while also providing them with multi-disciplinary tools to become future historiographers and contributing historians of the American Jewish story.”
We look forward to reviewing your proposals for these projects and working with you on recording the next chapter in the accumulated and accumulating Jewish story.
Aaron Dorfman is President of Lippman Kanfer Foundation for Living Torah; Stacie Cherner is Director of Learning and Evaluation at the Jim Joseph Foundation; and Lisa Eisen is Co-President, Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation.