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18 Years of the Jewish Women’s Archive

When Gail Twersky Reimer came up with the idea for the Jewish Women’s Archive, just over 18 years ago, the voices and history of Jewish women could be found in few places outside of the types of libraries and archives that only academics are excited to trawl.

Reimer wanted to create a virtual archive to elevate and illuminate the stories of Jewish women whose lives — rich, productive and important as they may have been — remained largely unknown because history was being written, by and large, by men. With the exception of a few path-breakers like Golda Meir and Barbra Streisand, Jewish women’s stories remained invisible, though they have now become a whole field of study.

“The first change we set out to do was to take down the barriers to find Jewish women’s history,” Reimer said in an interview with The Sisterhood. “We didn’t want anyone to say ‘there’s no place to find’ the information.” And as a result of JWA’s work, “the American Jewish narrative has changed,” she said. Women’s stories are woven throughout the exhibits at the National Museum of American Jewish History, in Philadelphia, for example. “The way they tell the story is dependent on material they got from us, and inserts women, not only the obvious well-known women, but promotes understanding that everyday women were shapers of Jewish life in America,” Reimer said.

Gail Twersky Reimer Image by JWA

JWA’s 18th anniversary was celebrated by 240 supporters Monday night at a dinner and presentations at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in lower Manhattan. A second party will take place at the JFK Presidential Library in Boston in September.

Reimer’s impulse to create a repository for the voices and histories of Jewish women stemmed from her own work, writing “Reading Ruth: Women Reclaim a Sacred Story” and “Beginning Anew: A Woman’s Companion to the High Holy Days,” and also to claim her own history, she said in her talk at the party. Her grandfather had been a Hasidic rebbe in Kielce, Poland, and all four grandparents were killed during the Holocaust. All she knew of them came from the handful of photographs that her parents, survivors of Auschwitz and Mauthausen themselves, had brought to America.

“My family history sensitized me to what it feels like to be deprived of a past as well as to how, in the absence of records, we turn to people as the living repositories of history,” Reimer said.

Before JWA “to learn about Jewish women you would have had to have known who you were going to look for, and then where to look,” said Pamela Nadell, chair of the history department and chair of the Jewish studies program at American University, in Washington. Nadell authored, among other books, “Women and American Judaism: A Historical Perspective” and “Women Who Would Be Rabbis.”

JWA wanted to get the information out there and it put it right on the wall with one of its early projects, creating 18 posters about lesser-known Jewish “Women of Valor,” which it distributed to 5,000 Jewish schools, synagogues and community centers. It produced a film, “Making Trouble,” about six Jewish female comic performers, from Sophie Tucker to Gilda Radner and Joan Rivers, and has a blog, “Jewesses with Attitude.” JWA runs educator seminars and webinars, as well as offers lesson plans and other resources. It created exhibitions on Jewish women and the feminist movement, on women in the civil rights movement and on Jewish voices from Hurricane Katrina. The organization, with a budget of $1.6 million, has a staff of 11 in its office in Brookline, Mass.

Reimer is stepping down from running JWA and at the party this week announced her successor, Judith Rosenbaum, a feminist historian who served as JWA’s director of public history and director of education for more than a decade. Excited cheers arose when Reimer said Rosenbaum’s name, since she is well known among the audience of historians for her own work at JWA and elsewhere. Her mother was the late Paula Hyman, a historian who, with Deborah Dash Moore, edited “Jewish Women in America: An Historical Encyclopedia,” an exhaustive two volume work which was first published in 1998.

New projects are in the offing for JWA: it will shortly unveil a reconceived website (which currently has 1.2 million unique visitors a year) and is working with the Jewish Women’s Theater in L.A. to preserve the stories of the first era of women in the rabbinate. And in cooperation with the American Jewish Archives in July JWA will take the first women who became rabbis in the Reform, Reconstructionist, Conservative and Modern Orthodox movements on a trip to Prague and Berlin, Geiger College and Terezin, in order to retrace the life of Regina Jonas, the very first woman ever to be ordained.

While JWA’s impact has been broad, it has not been totally successful in driving change down into the deepest levels of teaching and researching Jewish history.

“It would be almost unthinkable today to write a broad narrative of American Jewish experience and totally ignore women. But it’s still very difficult to integrate questions of gender into such work,” said Nadell. “JWA has provided the broad data, the tools, for doing that but it hasn’t been able to kind of push people necessarily in the broader new directions.”

Information about the roles and contributions of Jewish women is also part of mainstream Jewish education today in many places, Reimer said. “Teachers are teaching this material. Have we infiltrated into every school the way we hoped? No,” said Reimer. “There’s still lots of work to be done to mainstream stories of Jewish women into the stories we tell. But it’s a beginning.”

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