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Students contribute to groundbreaking Jewish history project

July 17, 2014

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    Maia Erickson ’15 is creating a digital archive of documents for the Rabat Genizah Project.

In 2005, while conducting Fulbright-sponsored research in Rabat, Morocco, Associate Professor of Sociology and Anthropology Oren Kosansky encountered a storage room full of documents in the city’s major synagogue. He would soon learn that the room—called a genizah—contained multilingual letters, manuscripts, poems, publications, community records, educational materials, and sacred texts that could reveal an Arab nation’s Jewish history.

In accordance with religious custom, the trove was slated to be buried. Kosansky sought to salvage what he could.

Now, many of the Rabat Genizah’s documents are available to anyone with computer access. After working extensively with Rabat’s Jewish community leaders to determine what should be preserved, Kosansky received a $50,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities in 2010 to create an archive of approximately 4,000 digital images. The archive follows Moroccan Jews from persecution in the 18th century to flourishing in the mid-20th century, when their population exceeded 250,000. It also tracks the subsequent staggering decline of that population, which numbers less than 2,500 today.

image“It’s fascinating and also a bit sad to comprehend the loss of a substantial Jewish minority in Morocco—a whole piece of Moroccan society and culture,” said Hannah McCain B.A. ’12 in a New Voices article on the Rabat Genizah Project. “That’s why it’s so important to have things like [the genizah], that document that once-robust presence.”

During the summer of 2011, McCain and Samantha Stein B.A. ’11 joined Kosansky in Morocco to begin digitizing and translating documents. This summer, Maia Erickson ’15 is continuing their translation efforts. She is also sharing knowledge of the digitization process with Vanessa Paloma, an ethnomusicologist who records musical and oral histories of Jewish Moroccans.

Erickson’s work with Paloma exemplifies two major intentions of the Rabat Genizah Project—to foster global collaboration and to set a standard for future archival endeavors in the humanities. By employing open-source technologies, the project has allowed a diverse demographic of students scholars, archivists, information technologists, community organizations, and research groups from around the world to make meaningful contributions. By being freely accessible, the project acts as an unprecedented resource in the realm of Jewish studies.

An extensive roster of Lewis & Clark students, faculty, staff, and alumni have contributed to the Rabat Genizah Project, participating in everything from site planning and graphic design to archival and library support, editing, and research. Meanwhile, a section of Lewis & Clark’s French 301 course has used the project as an educational tool to practice translation and transliteration.

Professor Oren KosanskyKosansky recognizes that the Rabat Genizah Project has significantly benefited from the involvement of Lewis & Clark students. But he also believes that the students themselves have profited greatly.

“Lewis & Clark students gain so much from working on the project,” Kosansky said. “They are able to further develop their language skills, work alongside professional scholars in dealing with primary historical documents, and gain valuable experience with digital technologies that are transforming contemporary scholarship.”

Read more about the Rabat Genizah Project in the following articles:

Katrina Staaf ’16 contributed to this story.

Sociology and Anthropology Rabat Genizah Project