Meet Gail Reimer: Founding Director of the Jewish Women’s Archive

May 29, 2009

Gail ReimerGrowing up, Gail Reimer, a 1984–85 American Fellow, knew she was going to have to do something more than just live her life. With two parents who had survived the Holocaust, Gail had been brought up to “pay it forward.” The Jewish Women’s Archive, with Gail is its founding director, is one big way she is giving back. The AAUW fellowship allowed Gail to take a sabbatical from her college professorship at a time when she was contemplating new ways to be involved in education.

The online Archive, created in 1995, was designed “to uncover, chronicle, and transmit to a broad public the rich history of American Jewish women.” It’s a place for teachers to go for lesson plan ideas, for researchers to find archived information, for lay people to read noteworthy blog posts, and more. According to Gail, this site is changing the landscape of knowledge on women’s history in North America. Thanks in part to the work of the Jewish Women’s Archive, Jewish women in their own right have become part of the North American women’s story. In the past, the stories of Jewish women were often assimilated into the story of white middle- or upper-class women; however, “once the Jewish Women’s Archive made its presence known, many syllabi on the history of women began including Jewish women and using the Archive as a source for more information,” Gail said.

Since the beginning, the site has been on the cutting edge, offering usable information as early as the late 1990s. Today the Archive is connected to social networking sites like Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, and a site blog, Jewesses with Attitude. In creating the Archive, Gail wanted to be able to match different technologies to the audiences they wanted to reach.

In 2007, the Jewish Women’s Archive branched into film with a documentary following three decades of Jewish women comedians such as Gilda Radner and Joan Rivers. The film, which has been screened in Germany, Mexico, Israel, and Hong Kong as well as in the United States, has been a huge success, often selling out showings.

Projects such as this film, however, are only the beginning of the limitless possibilities of the Archive. For example, high school teacher Barbara Ellison Rosenblit was inspired by the oral histories on the site and by the importance of collecting ordinary stories from ordinary women. She developed a seminar for high school seniors in which she taught students about oral histories, specifically Jewish women’s histories, to create a context. She then had students interview a woman of their choice and, with the aid of the art teacher, had students create related art projects.

“Through the project students understand the power of these stories,” explained Gail. It is these types of stories that Gail finds rewarding about working with the JWA. “We are planting the seeds for this to grow and get larger in ways we couldn’t even anticipate,” she said.

Looking ahead to the future of the Archive, Gail said she hopes they continue to produce original content and build a larger collection of user-generated resources. Gail acknowledges the democratic power of the Internet and hopes to use that to engage people more actively with the site.

Just as Gail listened to many people in the community about their needs in creating the Jewish Women’s Archive, she offered the same advice to those of us looking to her story for inspiration. “The way to develop an idea is to be open and talk with as many people as possible. Then really listen to what they have to say.”

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