Just over 10 years ago, Dr. Gail Twersky Reimer, together with donor-activist Barbara Dobkin, founded the Jewish Women's Archives (JWA) in Boston, Massachusetts. Their ideas was original and vital: to ensure that the voices of all American Jewish women - known and unknown, remarkable and ordinary - are heard as part of American and Jewish history. Since its modest inception, the JWA has grown into a leading American Jewish and women's organization, creatively and innovatively positioned at the complex intersections of feminism, history, Jewish community and 21st-century technology. Most recently, JWA has undertaken a somewhat surprising new project - Katrina's Jewish Voices, dedicated to the preservation of the Jewish experience of Hurricane Katrina. Recently in Jerusalem, Reimer met with In Jerusalem to talk about women's roles in the stories of history and the Jewish story of Katrina. Soft-spoken, articulate and wonderfully erudite, Reimer is both proud of JWA's achievements and reflective and self-critical about the organization, the American Jewish community and the importance of history. The search for models for her own life and the lives of young Jewish women inspired her to establish the JWA. "Like so many young people growing up," she recalls, "I went through a period where I would eat up biographies, especially of women of achievement - I remember Clara Barton and Golda Meir. I think that we have always needed role models to inspire us. At least until a certain point in time, women would look to older women in their own families. But unfortunately, the initial years of feminism told us that our mothers and grandmothers were not appropriate or good role models and that we should look elsewhere. That's no longer true, but my generation was left with the task of trying to uncover our own models, trying to find the women who had been there. "I wanted to make those women accessible. I knew that one of my goals was this: I don't want anyone to ever say that they would have included a woman, but they just didn't know where to look." The JWA is a virtual archive - that is, it has almost no actual holdings and is dedicated to making its materials available on-line to all, wherever they are physically located, and providing links and portals to other relevant resources. From the outset, Reimer says, she knew that the JWA would never become a physical repository. "We're seeing the rise of regionalism in America. There is growing resistance to the way that history is told by institutions in the northeast. Geography plays a role in identity, so Jewishness looks different in the mid-west than it does in the northeast because the geography and the Jewishness interact differently in each place. We knew that if we set up a physical repository in Boston, people would not want to send their documents away, where they couldn't access them. The technology available means they don't have to." A virtual archive, JWA creates virtual communities. Reimer explains: "Over the Internet, people can congregate around issues of particular interest. We may not think of this as a communal space, but younger people do view it as a communal space. It's a different way of knowing other people." In devoting this vast virtual archive to Jewish women, isn't Reimer concerned about the fragmentation of history, told from so many different viewpoints that the scholar and the lay person alike may find it hard to understand what "really" happened? Reimer responds, "We've learned in the 20th century that there are no single stories, there are many stories. Here in Israel, for example, what is the 'real' story of the establishment of the state - would a Jewish woman and an Arab woman tell the same story? We need first to make sure that all of these different stories are being told. Maybe then, at a later point, someone else can integrate them. But history will never be complete if it is exclusionary." Furthermore, she adds, the attention to Jewish women was particularly necessary in the American context. "In America, multiculturalism turned into a racial identity or an ethnic identity based on race, so Jewish women were encapsulated as white women, and no one was looking at their Jewishness. In American feminism, the Jewish piece was either attacked or ignored. So you can go into the wonderful Schlesinger Library [at Radcliffe University, dedicated to women - EP-G], but if you want to research something on women, you will find that the only women identified as Jewish women are women who worked in Hadassah or sisterhood or did identifiably Jewish work. You never would not be able to find, for example, listings for Bella Abzug as a Jewish woman - that is, as a woman who was Jewish and whose Jewishness was terribly important to her, but she worked in the world. "It is important to look at women's Jewishness as one factor in their identity. Gender is a factor, race is a factor, economic position, geographic location are factors. Jewishness is a factor and I don't want that factor erased. "There is no reason why my daughter, or anyone else's daughter, Jewish or not, should not have the opportunity to recognize that there is a Jewish women's history, just as there is an African-American women's history or a Latino women's history or an Asian-American women's history." Paradoxically, she says, the particularistic attention to Jewish women can lead to a commitment to the universal. "Let's give our girls a whole set of role models, so they see that it's possible to be Jewish and still do lots of things. The particularistic magnifying glass could actually broaden our view and help us to understand that we can apply the different parts of ourselves to solving problems. As she speaks, Reimer considers the connection to her own academic background. She holds a PhD in English literature and her own research focused on the 19th-century English novel. "Novels work only if you tell a particular story and put it in the context. From the particular story and your engagement with the characters, the universal will appear. Maybe that is why I am able to see the particular as a root to the universal, rather than as something that is exclusionary." By changing the terms of access and the availability and categories of knowledge, Reimer continues, JWA has helped to change what people think of as history and the conditions of under which history can be written. "We are creating categories of thinking, consciousness and knowledge. Thanks to the JWA, we can look at Jewish women as a research category. The knowledge we, and similar archives, have made available changes the conditions under which history can be written." It is a form of uncovering the past to transform the future. Yet she acknowledges that she regularly asks herself, "in the quiet, often sleepless moments. Given the deeply troubled times in which we find ourselves, and the many pressing issues calling for attention, whether JWA's mission is worthy of our time and commitment." She answers herself, "When I let myself honestly grapple with the question, I always emerge more, not less, committed to the mission. On one level, it's about bread and roses. You can't appreciate the roses without the bread. But if you just have the bread, if you don't think about the possibilities in life, how do we make this a better world, how do we nourish ourselves? Our work encourages people to think about the importance of living in a world that is just, a world that allows everyone their dignity - a world in which we can erase poverty. Telling women that they can participate in doing this, giving them models and presenting the ways in which women have banded together in the past to change the conditions in their communities - no, that isn't putting coins in their box, it it is pointing to ways to change the world." The JWA has pioneered innovative uses of technology, but Reimer says that she is far from being a "techie." "I don't have to be a techie. I dream. We figure out what we want - then we go to techie people and they make it happen. We don't develop new technologies, but we do use them and that's where we are on the cutting edge. We have pioneered the use of virtual space and we were one of the first groups to use interconnectivity, becoming a portal into other sites." Speaking of the Internet, Reimer notes that "the Internet played an amazing role during Katrina and especially in the months afterwards. That's how people communicated with each other. People had to flee, and they didn't have each other's phone numbers or addresses. They didn't know where to find each other, but they could connect through emails. The history itself was happening in the digital world, not just on the ground, and we tried to capture that." As the JWA had to consider the particularism of women's experience, questions regarding the Jewish experience of Katrina come up, too. "This goes back to the question of whose story is being told. There were many people who had to leave New Orleans, but only one community's story has been told today," Reimer responds. When Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans and the Gulf Coast on the morning of August 29, 2005, it devastated one of American's oldest Jewish communities. The first Jewish settler came to New Orleans in 1757 and the first Jewish congregation was chartered in 1828. New Orleans had a thriving Jewish community of nearly 10,000 and served as the hub of regional Jewish life. According to Reimer, even now, less than half of that community has returned and many will never return. The Jewish community, she acknowledges, fared better in some ways than the poorer communities who lived closer to the flood waters. They were a middle-class community, they had cars and could get out, and they had children in other places. Many did move out. Yet historically, she continues, a community is made up of different communities and the hurricane didn't discriminate between them. "So we should know how each community fared, for better or worse. Jews had people working for them and people who took care of them and those people left, too. So there's a different race story to be told. How responsible was the Jewish community to their neighbors? How the Jewish community responded, to its own people and to the rebuilding of New Orleans? I don't have the answers, but we want to make sure that someone is asking the questions. "DON'T DELETE ITEMS! CONTRIBUTE THEM!" the JWA Web site says, encouraging individuals and communities to search their computers for material they think may be of interest, sent digitally or typed in directly. Working with the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University, Katrina's Jewish Voices wants to ensure that the history becomes part of the virtual archive. The new site, up and running for less than two months, is already filled with personal testimonies and digital artifacts. "We want to democratize the story," Reimer says. "We're saying that anyone who wants to share a story is welcome to contribute." With the help of George Mason University, JWA broadened what Reimer refers to as the categories of classifications. She explains, "If you take a photo of the Torah scrolls being taken out of the synagogues - one person might think that that is a picture of the commandment to preserve the scrolls; another might think it's about the synagogue. Classifications are usually decided on by someone else, an expert, so if you're looking at a data base, you have to think in the way that the expert was thinking. "But classification is already a form of interpretation. By encouraging people to categorize, or tag, their items with terms that have meaning to them, we are enabling people to provide their own interpretations. That is inherently more democratic." The terms are striking, sometimes quirky, often moving, ranging from "dreidel" to "displacement," and from "acts of heroism" to "Katrina fatigue." A rabbi makes reference to "toxic gumbo" - a quintessential southern expression, based on a southern food that is hardly recognized in the northern US. To preserve the Jewish story, the JWA expanded beyond their usual focus on women, to encompass the full Jewish experience. However, Reimer says, "We are ensuring that outreach efforts are made so that the Jewish women's experience is included, too. The conventional way of doing Jewish history is to go to the top, and the top is always men. We are making sure that the history that we present is inclusive. With Katrina, since we know we're the only ones out there collecting the story, so we're including men's stories, too." In addition to the development of the Web site, the Katrina's Jewish Voices includes a set of 100 oral histories, collected in collaboration with the Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life in Jackson, Mississippi. And Reimer promises that that women will be well-represented, "which means a minimum of 50 percent," she states. Reimer believes that the JWA can be a model for Jewish women's archives elsewhere and says that she has been contacted by academic and women's groups in Israel. "We want to be a model, but each community will have to set up its own criteria and conception," she says. "Maybe, for example, the Israeli Women's Archive won't include only Jewish women. That would be exciting." Visit the Jewish Women's Archive at www.jwa.org Visit Katrina's Jewish Voices at http://katrina.jwa.org

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