Yeshiva University Archives and COVID-19 – Still Collecting After One Year

By Deena Schwimmer, Archivist
YU Libraries

It’s been noted recently that a full calendar year has passed since COVID-19 was declared to be a pandemic and lockdowns and other safety protocols began. This unhappy milestone was reached several weeks ago on the Jewish calendar with the holiday of Purim, around which time in 2020 these restrictions were enacted. For Yeshiva University in particular, the anniversary can be marked even earlier, as, due to an early case of COVID, our main campus was closed the week before Purim for what was hoped would be a brief period, but, as the pandemic developed, was extended.

Yeshiva University Archives is also marking a full year for which we have been collecting COVID materials in order to build a repository that documents the pandemic’s impact on the Jewish community. Since community participation has been instrumental in this initiative, we wanted to provide this update and share some ways people can continue to be involved.

What is the scope of the project?

As you can see from this initial call for materials last year, at first our scope cast a very broad net, both because we anticipated and hoped it would last only briefly, and we were not aware of other collecting projects. With such a protracted length and worldwide impact, we’ve needed to refine our scope. Our focus has become to document the pandemic’s impact on communal Jewish life in the United States and Canada of those who identify themselves as within the broad spectrum of Orthodox Judaism. We feel this scope best aligns with the Archives’ mission and leverages our community associations and contacts.

Does this scope leave out important groups?

We hope not! Many other entities are collecting COVID materials. In fact, we are aware of over 40 collecting projects focusing on segments of the Jewish community or specific types of materials. We are the only one focused on the Orthodox community, so we feel ours fills an important niche.

Even with this more targeted scope, we are aware that some groups may be harder to reach or to obtain materials from, and we are particularly interested in reaching them. We have put extra effort into acquiring materials from groups that don’t have an online presence, or segments of the Orthodox community that are traditionally underrepresented.

Why are you still collecting materials after a year?

Seder for 2, Courtesy of Gail Shirazi

That’s a really good question! It’s because the impact of the pandemic changes at each phase, and we want to document all of them in order for our collection to be used to study it as broadly as possible. For example, we want to capture how Passover will be observed in 2021 so it can be compared with how it was in 2020. There are also new aspects of the pandemic that are only arising now, such as the those associated with the vaccine. So, while we certainly hope we’re all past experiencing the darkest phase of the pandemic, we’re still in the midst of it from a collecting standpoint.

What types of materials are you collecting?

Given our scope, a large portion of our collection consists of institutional bulletins, announcements, rabbinic rulings, protocols, events and activities from synagogues, schools, community centers, va’adim and businesses. We are also collecting items that document how Shabbat/Holidays and ritual practices of families and individuals have been impacted.

These items are captured as electronic documents, images, audiovisual recordings, social media posts, and webpages.

How do you obtain materials?

One important way is from the public, which we appreciate and encourage you to continue. Materials can be submitted to jewishcovidarchive@gmail.com. Please note that if you don’t have the materials themselves but know of an interesting site, you can also submit a link to a website or social medial feed. Additionally, the Archives has had staff members dedicated for some time over this past year to discovering Orthodox institutional life on the web and social media. The focus initially was on the larger communities, but over time we’ve been able to reach many others. We are continually working to broaden our range, and as mentioned, to especially include underrepresented segments.

How large is the collection?

It’s a little hard to say, because we still have a backlog of items that haven’t been absorbed into our main collection. But to give you an idea, the main collection contains over 15,000 files and comprises over 46 GB.

Where can we view the items?

Well, our primary focus this past year has been on collecting versus providing access, though we agree that the purpose of a research collection is to be available for study. We feel this was the best use of our efforts because most of the material we’re collecting is ephemeral and may not be available for very long. As a result, much of the collection is what archivists refer to as ‘unprocessed’, which means it has not yet been sufficiently organized or appraised for public access. For a collection of this nature, some of the important elements in processing are considerations of copyright and privacy. Since we have been careful to mostly collect materials that were publicly available, this may make the assessment easier, but it still needs to be done.

A small set of items we’ve collected are available here through the portal of the American Jewish Life COVID collecting project. Spearheaded by the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History & New Media at George Mason University, American Jewish Life documents experiences and responses from American Jewish individuals and communities during the COVID-19 pandemic. Yeshiva University Archives is a partner in this project, along with other academic and cultural institutions.

How can students or members of the public help?

First and foremost, we invite you to contribute materials as described above through jewishcovidarchive@gmail.com. If this project sounds like something you would like to be involved with, contact us at archives@yu.edu and we can try to arrange a volunteer position. Additionally, we have several work-study positions available for students. All work is done remotely. Thank you in advance!!