What are Jews doing during covid?
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What are Jews doing during covid?

New online archive documents American Jewish life as history right now — and is looking for more stuff. From you!

When you think about it, you realize that there’s no such thing as living in a-historic times.

Even in the most placid-seeming eras — say the 1950s in the United States — change was happening, at first underground, then closer and closer to the surface, then exploding through. Becoming upper-case History.

Even in our own families, change is constant; we grow, for better or worse we adapt, we age. Our own personal histories grow, even if we’d prefer them not to.

But some times are more historic than others. Right now, we are living through such a blatantly historic time that it would be funny were it not so terrifying, strange, and overwhelmingly sad.

A young couple went to Colorado for a socially distanced wedding; their rabbi, back home in Houston, married them on Zoom. (Houston Jewish History Archive at Rice University)

What does it mean to be Living Through History?

For one thing, it means that many of us want to hear and to tell our stories.

How do we do that?

We use some of the historical changes from which we’ve benefitted across the last few decades. We take advantage of the internet to digitalize our stories. We put them online.

And when we do that, we democratize history for all of us.

Dr. Zev Eleff, left, Dr. Lincoln Mullen, and Dr. John Turner

The Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, has begun what it calls the Pandemic Religion: A Virtual Archive. That online archive is divided into different sections; the one that’s most relevant here — and perhaps the most active — is called American Jewish Life.

With its formidable list of partners, which include Yeshiva University and a range of American Jewish museums and university-affiliated archives, American Jewish Life invites materials from all of us who are living through covid history — that’s all of us — and makes them available to all of us.

Zev Eleff, who lives in Skokie, Ill., is the chief academic officer at Hebrew Theological College there; he’s also an associate professor of Jewish history for the New York-based Touro College and University System. The American Jewish Life project was in large part his brainchild, and he’s one of its curatorial partners.

Dr. Eleff earned his doctorate at Brandeis University, studying with Jonathan Sarna. “I am a student of American Judaism,” he said. “I try to reach back as far as the colonial period, but lately I’ve been doing a lot of contemporary work.” The definition of “contemporary” varies by historian; the conventional view defines it as more or less from about 25 years ago until now, he added. He’d been researching 19th and 20th century Jewish life, but he’d started thinking about the pandemic and the Jewish responses to it. “A lot of creativity has gone into recreating Jewish communal experiences,” he said. “There’s been an extraordinary amount of creativity, whether or not you like all of it, in covid times.” So he talked to two of his historian friends, Lincoln Mullen and John Turner, who also had studied with Dr. Sarna, and who both work at George Mason. Dr. Mullen and Dr. Turner already had begun the Pandemic Religion archive. “I reached out to them, and said ‘Is there anything we can do?’ and within a few hours it became very apparent that they were doing a wonderful project on covid and religion. We could do a subset on the Jewish response — and that subject could stand alone.

This man wears a matching tallis and mask during a socially distanced minyan from Adas Israel, a big Conservative shul in D.C., on rosh chodesh Elul. (American Jewish Life)

“We could leverage their technological expertise. And we could bring together an extraordinary group of museums and researchers, women and men who are doing great work.

“And they all signed on. So we wrote a call to action that was published in eJewish Philanthropy. We reached out to rabbinical organizations. We are not stuck in denominational lanes. We are trying to grab a wide swath of American Jewish life, and our partners reflect that.”

Dr. Eleff’s “background in American Judaism is to understand American Jewish life in the context of American religion writ large,” he said. “So whereas some will write about American Jews as a culture, as a race, as an ethnicity, my background is to understand the contours of American Judaism, and to map it onto the ebbs and flows of American religion.

“With Pandemic Religion and American Jewish Life, working with our partners, we are able to map the materials of the American Jewish experience in covid-19 onto what other faith groups are doing concurrently. The website allows you to search for sermons, so scholars and students are able to look at what a Southern Baptist preacher said, and correlate it with what a Reform or Reconstructionist or Orthodox rabbi said in a sermon as well.

“It fits very neatly, not just for me but for all the partners.”

Contributor Karen Levi contributed this image, documenting her weekly virtual Shabbat. (Capital Jewish Museum)

That also fits very neatly into the archive’s other main goal. When Dr. Eleff talked about the “scholars and students” who could browse through the materials and alight on any of them, he wasn’t being redundant. Students, in this case, aren’t only academics. He meant high-school students, maybe even middle-scholars, kids whose access to historical documents — to the stuff of history — could change their understanding of the world.

“When historians and sociologists start to research American Jewish life during covid, there already will be archives,” he said. “This project is aimed at them, and also at schools and adult education courses. My vision for this archive is that social studies teachers will be able to assign projects that leverage these resources.”

The archive includes written material, photos, videos, screen shots, Zoom shots, music, synagogue bulletins — all the stuff of normal life during the pandemic.

“We hope to develop guides to help rabbis, teachers, even college professors make better use of this material,” Dr. Eleff continued. “It is navigable now, and it will be even better with those resources. So if a teacher is talking about the bubonic plague, or is talking about the Second Temple and wants to explain what a sanctuary is — our goal is to make this resource available, and different.

This image comes from a video that shows representatives of the Institute of Southern Jewish Life celebrating Passover with a virtual passing of a seder plate. (Institute of Southern Jewish Life)

“This is a unique moment. And everybody has been affected. There is not one child who has had a regular birthday party during the last six months. There is no one who has not experienced synagogue differently during the last six months, no matter what kind of synagogue.

“This is a moment of clarity for everyone. A moment to understand how faith communities — and specifically how American Judaism — interacted with America.”

The cooperation of all the archivists and museum curators who are contributing to the project “is wonderful,” Dr. Eleff said. “I can’t stress enough how unprecedented, how extraordinary it is. Archivists naturally are silent, and they are most concerned about their institutional archives. Here they have come together. They have put in place an archive without walls.”

That’s where the democratization starts to come in.

Rabbi Mark Urkowitz teaches his weekly Torah class, now on Zoom, for a Jewish senior care facility in Houston.

The pandemic is far from the first crisis that either the Jewish community or the United States has endured, but it is the first to have happened in the online world. “The fact that the stuff of American Jewish life during covid is mostly digital makes it much easier,” Dr. Eleff said, although the archive does contain some images of actual physical things. “I know that a number of Jewish federations sent out Passover seder kits,” he said. “Those found their way into archives,” and from there were turned into pixels.

The archive also shows “that lived religion is not necessarily what the rabbis are saying, or are sermonizing over Zoom or on YouTube videos. It’s what regular Jews are doing. It’s the American Jewish experience as it is lived.”

The archive “started with the idea of collecting any material pertaining to religion during this time,” John Turner said; he’s a scholar of American religion and specializes in Protestantism and in the Latter Day Saints. “That’s because my colleague Lincoln Mullen and I were just so fascinated with the way that religious practice changed overnight, across the board, during the pandemic. It’s true for Jews, Christians, and Muslims, because everyone’s lives turned right on the verge of Passover, Easter, and Eid.

“For the most part, religious congregations across the country were pretty nimble. They shifted a lot of religious life on a dime.”

The Rosenzweig Center had opened similar collections already; it has holdings showing the devastation and response to September 11th and to Hurricane Katrina. Although the software had to be updated, it was in place. So when Drs. Eleff, Turner, and Mullin established the American Jewish Life collection, “we were hoping that we’d be collecting things like screen shots of Zoom seders and online sermons for a month or two, so we thought that we’d have to collect fast,” Dr. Turner said.

This message was carefully written on the sidewalk outside Trader Joe’s on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. (American Jewish Life)

But no.

The pandemic still is raging, the virus still is infecting and killing victims, and the collection still is collecting.

Although the American Jewish Life section is just part of the Pandemic Religion project, it is the most active part now, Dr. Turner said. There are a number of reasons for that — reasons that include Dr. Eleff’s work on it, and the connections that he’s able to bring to enrich it. Among those reasons is “the fact that one of the initial epicenters was the synagogue in New Rochelle, and that there has been a lot of news, some of it controversial, about chasidic groups in New York.” But the archives also contain material from other groups, including “a church in California that is currently resisting restrictions on indoor services. One of our researchers connected with some folks there, and they contributed some videos of church services, and we also connected with some folks who are doing outdoor baptisms on the beaches in California.”

Dr. Turner said that among the most fascinating objects, for him, in the Jewish collection are the “digital haggadas from Passover.” He also mentioned the statements from the Rabbinical Council of Bergen County; the RCBC was among the first and the strongest voices to mandate that the congregations led by its member rabbis take science seriously and follow the hard but necessary guidelines that limited their contact with the outside world.

He was particularly interested in the RCBC’s guidance because “for Reform Jews, and for mainline Protestants such as myself, the transition was so effortless. You just tune in on Zoom.” But halachically observant Jews could not do that on Shabbat and chaggim, and they could not assemble a minyan online. “It is a good reminder that different religious groups” — and at times different sectors of the same religious group — “confront different challenges,” he said.

Eve Mannes of Atlanta made this mask out of her husband’s kippot. (William Breman Jewish Heritage Museum)

Dr. Turner also was moved by “photographs of funeral services and shiva. It’s a reminder of how sober and lonesome grief can be during this time. I can imagine scholars in 30 or 50 years looking back at some of those images and thinking about the ways in which the pandemic created spiritual challenges for people at this time.”

Like Dr. Eleff, Dr. Turner urges anyone who has anything related to American Jewish life during covid to send it in. (See box.)

Curators at the collection look at all the material that’s sent. “We want to make sure that there’s nothing hateful or that raises obvious intellectual privacy concerns, although of course we can police it only imperfectly,” Dr. Taylor said. “We’ve had only a couple of incidents.” Some of the material is kept private — if you send in something with phone numbers, for example, it’s unlikely that it’ll be made public — but beyond that, everything that’s sent is posted.

The eventual goal is to have the material curated and interpreted, Dr. Turner said. “The software has good curation capabilities, so we could do an online exhibit about Bergen County or funerals or High Holy Days. And once the pandemic is over, we can curate it more. When you go into a physical museum, you don’t want to encounter random objects, but to see them grouped in a logical way, and with interpretation.

“We are hoping to find some funders who can help us with the resources to do that interpretive work.” In the meantime, he urged, consider sending content to help historians, scholars, and students understand how the American Jewish community responded to the pandemic. “As a historian, I am so grateful to people in past eras who preserved materials, in whatever forms they were in. I go to old-fashioned archives. It’s such a gift when you come across something from an ordinary-ish person from the 1600s, or the 1900s. That is what motivated me to collect things today.”

So please keep those things coming!

Dr. Jessica Mack

Jessica Mack is a brand-new postdoctoral fellow at the Rosenzweig Center; she earned her doctorate from Princeton this spring and didn’t start at the center until July, when the pandemic was in full swing. “They asked me to take on day-to-day management of the project,” she said. “I was in charge of the American Jewish Life launch, and I have some research students working on the database, and helping users to upload to it.

“But now our main task is outreach. We are trying to get the word out to as many communities as possible. We have found that people are excited about the project, but there still is some confusion.

“I see my job as trying to translate what we are doing, to explain what a digital archive is and why it is important to preserve information online.”

Dr. Mack also is working on ways to preserve the information in the collection.

People tend either to think that once it is online, all data stays up forever — that’s certainly the approach to take before you hit send on your email — or that once it’s up in the ether it etherealizes, lost forever. Neither of those things is true.

Funerals during covid, like this one in Maryland, have to be small; mourners must be masked and socially distant. (Capital Jewish Museum)

“We want to think with a bit more intention,” she said.

The idea of the collection — a term she prefers to “archive,” in part because she is a historian, not an archivist, and in part because an archive is more closed, formal, and inaccessible — is to add to public history. The collection, as the creation not of one person or a hierarchical team but of collaboration, is both an outgrowth and a symbol of public history.

The term is hard to define precisely, Dr. Mack said, but it’s a collaboration among historians “and the broader public. One of the core concepts behind it is sharing authority, so instead of a historian telling everyone else about the past, we share it with students, citizens, and the public. It’s collaborative.”

Even the term “history” is hard to define; we think of it as the past, but the collection is about right now, and still it’s history. “If we are going to understand the past, we have to understand ourselves as actors in the present,” Dr. Mack said. “The more you get into the history of the present, the more it becomes very complex. You are always grappling with it.”

On the one hand, she and her colleagues have these conceptual discussions all the time. On the other, they also work with the extremely practical realities of running a database and collecting material that will be entered into it. “That is one of the best things about the Rosenzweig Center,” she said. “It’s the constant conversation between historians and developers. It’s the collaboration of people with very different know-how and training, all coming together to create this project.”

Rabbi Jon Spira-Savett of Temple Beth Abraham in Nashua, New Hampshire, submitted this image of a livestreamed service in front of empty pews. (American Jewish Life)

To move out of the conceptual, what in the collection has most moved her?

“One of the things that springs to mind for me is a seder plate in a wonderful video from the Institute of Southern Jewish Life,” she said. (Formally, that’s the Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life, based in Jackson, Mississippi; it’s one of the collection’s partners.) “There’s a lot of beautiful, touching material from Passover, showing how people find ways to come together when physical separation is necessary, through music and food.

“Some of the most touching and heartbreaking stories are about mourning, and about what happens to the rituals around illness, death, and dying. We have some beautiful items about marriages and births. It really has invited a conversation about basic human rituals and ceremonies, those important moments in human life, about how the Jewish community is connecting and celebrating them, but in different ways, and online.

“A lot of other beautiful ones are from summer camps. That’s an essential way that young people connect, and camps are really important places for forming Jewish community. We have some videos from summer camps, sharing music. We see all those faces on Zoom, of kids saying hi to their friends and sharing songs with their counselors and community leaders. We see all these people trying to connect.”

It’s those moments — the personal truths that nestle inside larger historic events — that the curators want to add to the collection. “‘Let me add my little grain of sand to this collection,’” Dr. Mack imagines — hopes — that American Jews are thinking.

Like her colleagues, she hopes that as long as the pandemic maintains its grip, American Jews will send communiques from the covid front to the American Jewish Life collection.


How to send material to the American Jewish Life collection

First, think about what you might have to share. It’s particularly relevant for representatives of synagogues and other Jewish institutions, although you can send your own material too.

Go to pandemicreligion.org/s/american-jewish-life or google American Jewish Life Pandemic Religion. (That’s an extra step but it’s easier to type.)

When you’re at the homepage, click on Share Your Material. (Also, of course, you should spend some time looking at what the collection’s got so far.)

The form is fairly straightforward, but if you feel daunted by it, keep in mind that “our staff would be happy to do a Zoom session with a group to help them see how to contribute,” Dr. Taylor said.

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