The Director of the Jewish Women’s Archive Asks ‘Can We Talk?’

October 30, 2019
Photo courtesy of Judith Rosenbaum

The nonprofit Jewish Women’s Archive (JWA) is dedicated to collecting and sharing the stories of Jewish women and their contributions throughout history. Part of its mission is to inspire others to become agents of change. Its website (jwa.org) includes thousands of stories about inspiring, courageous and interesting Jewish women. People can also engage with JWA through their blog, podcast, public programs and fellowship program. 

The Journal caught up with JWA Executive Director Judith Rosenbaum, who oversees the organization’s work. 

Jewish Journal: Why is it important to have the Jewish Women’s Archive?

Judith Rosenbaum: We’re making sure that the lives, experiences and achievements of Jewish women are part of the Jewish story, so that it reflects the richness and fullness of our history. One aspect of what we do is documenting Jewish women’s stories and making them accessible to people all over the world. Another aspect is inspiring people to be history makers in their own right. History is not just about the past, it also shapes our understanding of ourselves, the world we live in and what’s possible for the future. So we explore the past as a framework for understanding the issues important to Jews and women today.

JJ: How long has the JWA been in operation?

JR: We’ve been doing this work for almost 25 years, and I’m so glad that the rest of the world is catching on to the importance of paying attention to women’s voices. JWA has an abundance of resources that are always relevant and are particularly resonant in this cultural moment. 

JJ: What is your role in the organization? 

JR: I’m trained as a historian, so I come from the content side of the work. Before becoming executive director, I served in several other roles at JWA. So I bring a lot of institutional memory and experience to my current role. Being an executive director is really several jobs rolled into one: I focus on shaping the organizational vision and direction, building and managing staff and board, fundraising, serving as an organizational spokesperson and thought leader, writing and speaking nationally on issues of women, gender and Jewish history and culture.

JJ: JWA has a really interesting podcast, called “Can We Talk?” What can you tell us about it?

JR: I’m a bit of a podcast junkie, so when I became executive director, one of my ideas was to create a JWA podcast. The podcast medium is very powerful because audio has a certain intimacy to it. Listeners feel like they’re part of the conversation. We launched the podcast in 2016, and we’ve covered so many different topics, from mahjong to Israeli peace activism, from single motherhood to Jewish hair. It’s been a fun and successful way to show the diversity of Jewish women’s experiences and perspectives and to reach new audiences. We’re currently refining the podcast a little so stay tuned.

JJ: How do you decide on the guests for “Can We Talk?”

JR: The focus of the podcast is telling stories at the intersection of gender, history and Jewish culture, so our mandate is pretty wide. In fact, part of what we’re trying to do is challenge people’s stereotypes of who Jewish women are and what Jewish women care about and do, so there are many options of guests to feature. We keep a running list of stories we want to tell and relevant contemporary issues that we can explore with a JWA angle. We try to craft a season with a range of stories connecting to hot topics and to other JWA programs. Our mini-season this fall will focus on interviews with authors whose books are featured in the JWA Book Club this year, and then we’ll release another, fuller set of episodes in the spring.

JJ: Can you discuss the extensive JWA encyclopedia that is available for anyone to access? 

JR: Our “Encyclopedia of Jewish Women” is an amazing resource with thousands of entries on Jewish women from the Bible to the present. We’re currently in the midst of a big revision and expansion of the encyclopedia, and working with an amazing international editorial board of scholars to update the content and add new essays. It’s been gratifying to hear from users of the encyclopedia around the world how it has impacted their teaching, learning and understanding of Jewish history. 

The encyclopedia is our core scholarly content, but we also have so much other material on our site, including shorter profiles, online exhibits, lesson plans, primary sources, a book club, a blog and oral history tools. There’s something for everyone. 

JJ: Can you talk a little about JWA’s Rising Voices Fellowship? 

JR: Rising Voices is a national program that trains female-identified teens in grades 10-12 to be thought leaders who shape conversations in their communities. It helps them explore what it means to be a young Jewish woman today, the legacy they’re inheriting and their roles and responsibilities as history-makers. Through both in-person retreats and monthly webinars, they learn about Jewish history, feminism and writing as a tool for social change. 

We’ve just started our sixth national cohort, so this program is relatively new compared to some of our other work. It’s been very exciting to watch it grow. In addition to the 18 current fellows, we now have more than 75 graduates and we’re building a strong alumnae network. Rising Voices is such a hopeful part of our work — our fellows and alumnae inspire us and teach us so much.

JJ: How does JWA involve the public in its work?

JR: One way is by engaging the public as our partners in collecting stories of Jewish women and their lives. We’ve just launched a mobile app called Story Aperture, which helps people conduct short interviews and then upload them to our website. We offer many different entry points — from educational resources for teachers and students, to a blog and a book club for readers and writers, to active social media conversations — and more than a million-and-a-half people around the world use our resources every year. 

JJ: Looking through JWA resources, it’s clear that there are many incredible Jewish women whose stories may not be known to the public, but should be.

JR: That’s exactly why JWA exists. JWA makes these stories accessible to anyone anywhere, so that they can be known more widely. We want Jewish history to include women’s stories and women’s history to include Jewish stories. So we have our work cut out for us, and we feel privileged to be helping create a world in which the voices and achievements of Jewish women and girls, past and present, are known and valued.

Allison Futterman is a writer based in North Carolina. 

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