Reinventing a Century of History for a Modern World
When COVID-19 halted in-person events, JDC Archives reimagined itself for a virtual world. Through online events, JDC Archives reached more people than ever.
October 6, 2021
Bringing decades of Jewish history to life through a screen is no easy task — but JDC is doing just that.
Comprised of more than three miles of documents, over 150,000 photos, and some 3,600 films, videos, and audio recordings, the JDC Archives is a trove of Jewish historical treasures. Since the 1970s, these items have been essential to the work of researchers and scholars, museums, filmmakers, genealogists, and educators around the world, and serve as a source of inspiration and information for the global Jewish community.
Prior to the pandemic, in addition to its website and extensive database, many interacted with the JDC Archives through its public programs, five to eight in-person events hosted each year. These included the annual Helen Cohen Memorial Lecture and various other lectures by scholars and JDC Archives Fellows — events that were captivating yet intimate, drawing inquisitive, dedicated crowds.
JDC Board Member Debby Miller, who chairs the Archives Committee, is a big advocate for these events. As a history buff, she is fascinated by the JDC Archives’ ability to tell the organization’s story and its impact on Jews around the world.
“I want to show the world what JDC does,” Miller said, “and I think the best way to do that is through our Archives — the living, breathing story of our organization.”
However, when COVID-19 halted in-person gatherings, these signature events had to be reimagined for the new reality. Rather than being daunted by the challenge, Archives staff instead seized the opportunity, finding ways to reach global audiences through engaging virtual public programs.
In the last year alone, Archives has hosted more than 20 virtual events, including film screenings and special guest lectures, and even a virtual edition of the Helen Cohen Memorial Lecture. The virtual format has allowed the Archives to host speakers from around the world, with topics spanning everything from Holocaust-era refugees in Shanghai and Jews in Muslim countries to Jewish resilience in Bosnia and Herzegovina in the early ‘90s and a special lecture from JDC Board member Dr. Zvi Gitelman on JDC’s return to the Soviet Union in the ‘80s, and beyond.
That accessibility has also attracted new, global audiences. Prior to the pandemic, and with thousands of miles between them and the New York-based JDC Archives, many did not have access to in-person events, and most events capped out at around 50-80 people. Virtual offerings have brought the Archives to anyone with a computer, tablet, or smartphone screen, with many programs attracting several hundred participants from many different countries.
JDC Ambassadors David and Ruth Musher were first inspired by JDC Archives after attending the public lecture “Lost Souls: Retrieving Jewish War Orphans after the Holocaust” in March 2013.
Since then, they have created the Ruth and David Musher/JDC Archives Fellowship aimed at developing more opportunities for scholars to conduct research in the JDC Archives. They’ve also remained staunch advocates for the Archives and the power of its events — both virtually and in-person, which JDC hopes to reintroduce in 2022 and beyond.
“It’s wonderful that public programs have expanded and have allowed really unusual windows into JDC. At the same time, there is something special about in-person, hands-on experiences. There is no substitute for it,” they said. “There is a unique value in having an in-person audience, and that personal connection you get with the lecturer.”
Looking ahead to a post-pandemic landscape, JDC Archives Global Director Linda Levi envisions a hybrid model — taking advantage of the reach of virtual events, while maintaining the intimacy of in-person gatherings.
“Virtual events have really opened up a whole new world. They are a great vehicle for reaching audiences old and new, far and wide,” she said. “However, I think there will always be a yearning for in-person events, a feeling that just can’t be replicated through a screen, and we look forward to that time when we can bring people back together again.”