Yeshiva University’s Jewish COVID Archive

By: Adina Bruce  |  October 29, 2020
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By Adina Bruce, Website Manager

The term “unprecedented” is used so much to describe our current reality created by the Covid-19 pandemic that it has almost become a joke. Despite the overused nature of this term, academic institutions around the world, including Yeshiva University’s Library, have been grappling with how to respond when living through “unprecedented” times that will likely be included in history books. Mid-March through April, the world was coming to terms with the fact that the Covid-19 pandemic was not going to go away any time soon, and the realization that the future was going to look very different than previously imagined. 

In response to this realization, academic institutions around the world began documenting in real-time the responses to and effects of the pandemic. Jewish institutions and departments such as the National Library of Israel, the Houston Jewish History Archive at Rice University, YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, and the Yeshiva University Archives also took part in this work. Each institute is archiving from a different perspective but all are looking to capture the moment by examining specifically the response of the Jewish community. The National Library of Israel is focusing specifically on Jewish communities in Europe, while YIVO is focussed on gathering first hand testimonials. The YU Archives is focusing on the North American Jewish Community response. The YU Archives along with other university departments such as the Hebrew Theological College and the Houston Jewish History Archive at Rice University are additionally collaborating to provide material for the online “American Jewish Life” archive, an archive documenting American Jewish life during the pandemic as part of the larger “Pandemic Religion: A Digital Archive,” which is archiving general religious life during the pandemic.

The Yeshiva University Library is already familiar with the process of gathering material for archives, due to the  Archives & Special Collections department, which aims to “hold organizational and institutional records and private papers relating to modern Jewish history and culture in the United States and abroad.” Realizing the unique position they were in to be able to collect material as it was being produced, the YU Archive Team began collecting material for the “Jewish Covid Archive” some time in late March, and inviting crowd sourced material in late April.

The value of narrowing the scope of the archive to specifically the Jewish community is “that this epidemic would affect the Jewish community in particular areas that would distinguish it from the public at large in social and halachic (Jewish legislative) realms,” explained Shulamith Berger, Curator of Special Collections and Hebraica-Judaica to the YU Observer. The hope is that these gathered materials will be used by scholars and researchers in the future, who are looking to study the pandemic and its effects. In a statement to the YU Observer, David Selis, Leon Charney Fellow at the YU center for Israel Studies and volunteer for the project explained, “It’s impossible to determine what future scholars will want so we have to use our best judgement and often try to capture as much as possible.” However there is a limit to how much can be collected. “We need enough but not too much … 50-100 shul closure emails [are needed] for a good sample but we don’t need every weekly shul email for example. It’s a matter of archivist judgement,” continued Selis. The majority of the material has been collected digitally, with staff archivists browsing the internet and social media, and subscribing to community email lists. Material is also gathered via crowdsourcing, with submissions sent to the email address: jewishcovidarchive@gmail.com. 

Creating an almost exclusively digital archive is a new experience for the YU Archive Team, providing them with an opportunity to learn and grow. “[T]here is a kind of paradigm shift required to become as comfortable with a purely digital collection, especially such a large one. For example, digital file names are much more important than physical folder labels, which we’re used to browsing through.” said Archivist Deena Schwimmer to the YU Observer. “There are also many tools that facilitate management of digital collections, which we’re learning about. So in addition to being a collection of historic importance, this project is also raising our digital collecting skills to a new level.” Specific issues associated with such a collection include copyright laws that apply to social media posts, and questions of how this medium should be recorded. Furthermore the digital format of the materials means that it has been more challenging to collect material from communities that have less interactions online. 

Examples of materials collected are varied in topic, tone and source: From early on in the pandemic, there is an advertisement from the “Hebrew Free Burial Association” calling for donations of taleisim (prayer shawls). Targeting Yiddish speaking residents of New York, there are posters from the New York City government outlining social distancing measures. Piskei Teshuvot (Responsum) of Rav Hershel Schachter have been published, addressing the myriad of halachic issues that have come up as a result of the pandemic. A more lighthearted example includes a Minecraft model of the Wilf Campus and Gottesman Library created by current student Betzalel Shapiro. On his work being included he commented to the YU Observer, “I think it’s pretty cool for this part of my little early-quarantine project to be recognized in this way, even though I built the campus ‘for the meme of it,’ it ended up being something I was proud of and put a lot of time into. The library was easily my favorite build and I honestly think it turned out the best, so I’m glad to see it included in the archive.”

While the start of the pandemic is clear to most people, when it will end is sure to be more foggy. As explained to the YU Observer by Sara Seiger, archives associate, “Maybe there will be a point at which Jewish life goes back to normal as we knew it, or maybe there will be a point at which it becomes clear some changes are here to stay and we have a new normal.” 

As this new normal continues, the Jewish Covid Archive offers us an opportunity not often given to those who live through history; a way to write our story as it is happening. “I think … during a prolonged crisis, there isn’t time to fully examine your emotional response to what’s happening. I think we will all have a lot of processing – and grieving – to do once we are able to do it. This is one way to keep all of our stories safe until then,” commented Saiger. When asked what YU students could do to assist the project Saiger was clear: “Keep sending us material!” Examples of materials that could be sent include, “pictures of a socially distanced minyan for example, or have notices or guidelines issued by a school, camp, or shul, or covid related memes. If students would like to write about their experiences during covid, they are welcome to submit those as well; it would be helpful for the student to note if the archive is welcome to make their writings public,” specified Berger. 

The Jewish Covid Archive project speaks to a very human need to prepare for the future and hope that our lives will be remembered. Rarely do we experience periods where we can be certain that the events we are living through will be included in the history books. With this certainty comes the responsibility of preserving our present for that future. As expressed by Professor Steven Fine in his conversation “Crisis and Hope: YU Voices” with Berger on the project, “The richer this is, the richer our understanding of ourselves will be in the coming generations.”

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