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Tweeting the Encyclopedia of Jewish Women

“Big Hats and bigger opinions, she knew ‘This woman’s place is in the House—the House of Representatives,’” Rabbi Ruth Abusch-Magder tweeted on May 2, the launch day for Jewish Women’s Archive’s “#jwapedia: Tweeting the Encyclopedia” project. By doing so, she sent a link to the article about Bella Abzug in the online “Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia” hurtling out into cyberspace to be clicked on, opened and read by her many Twitter followers.

The rabbi (and occasional Sisterhood contributor), together with 25 other prolific tweeters in the Jewish community, will be tweeting a significant portion of the encyclopedia’s 1,700 biographies, 300 thematic essays, and 1,400 photographs as an experiment throughout May in honor of Jewish American Heritage Month.

Although they were asked to commit to tweeting just one article a week, many of the partners have immediately embraced the project and have been tweeting multiple articles a day. Three days into the effort, 58 articles had already been tweeted — and retweeted many times over.

Abusch-Magder, who suggested the project idea to JWA, sees this as an experiment in harnessing the power of social media to let people transmit and translate historical information in their own way and to their own networks. “Scholars are not going to make history popular, but something like this will,” the rabbi said.

The project is designed very openly to allow tweeters to choose whichever articles interest them. They need only search the online encyclopedia by keywords, time period or countries and come up with a catchy way to summarize a scholarly article in 140 characters or less. It is completely fine if several tweeters tweet the same article.

The original team of tweeters, joined already by a handful of others, have sliced and diced the material according to individual passions such as Broadway performers, Canadian Jewish history and cookbook authors.

“It’s an exercise in remembering the varied ties we have to history, in acknowledging that different things draw different people in,” JWA’s Leah Berkenwald, a frequent Sisterhood contributor, said.

Abusch-Magder believes that “this fundamentally challenges the top-down model of history.”

Liz Polay-Wettengel, community manager for JewishBoston.com and a #jwapedia tweeter, blogged recently that she easily found people she never heard of and was fascinated to learn about. “For example, do you know about Bessie Louise Moses? No? She is the founder of the first birth control clinic in 1927 and a pioneer in women’s reproductive health. She paved the way for so many others in women’s health and I’m thrilled to be able to learn about her through the Jewish Women’s Archive encyclopedia,” Polay-Wettengel wrote.

Anyone can join the campaign by tweeting a link to the Encyclopedia using the hashtag #jwapedia.

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