(January 17, 2021, USA/Israel, JNS Wire) While the world is still grappling with the effects of COVID-19, dozens of leading Jewish thinkers reflect on ways that Jews have perceived and experienced plagues throughout history in a new online platform.
The project includes 30 videos of speakers from across disciplines, including Washington Post’s Steven Zeitchik, who explores the theme of plagues in Hollywood, Egyptologist and Curator Emeritus at the Brooklyn Museum, Dr. Edward Bleiberg, who unearths the story of the ten plagues of Egypt in archeology, and Faculty Director of the Richard S. Dinner Center for Jewish Studies at the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, Dr. Deena Aranoff, who discusses a contemporary topic – the Jewish household in time of pandemic.
The “Plagues Project” is the second project launched by a collaboration of five Jewish organizations, BINA: The Jewish Movement for Social Change, Judaism Unbound, 929 English, The Oshman Family JCC, and jewishLIVE. The groups teamed up last summer to create the online Akedah Project, which explored the Binding of Isaac story from the Hebrew Bible ahead of Rosh Hashanah. For “The Plagues Project,” groups collaborated with a sixth organization, the Office of Innovation, which is set to publish a collection of essays on the topic, titled “Torah in a Time of Plague.” The Plagues Project is part of a larger initiative between these organizations, as they work to create an online hub that makes Jewish learning more accessible, inclusive, intellectually stimulating, and dynamic.
The project presents different perspectives in historic and current contexts. “Plagues play an important role in Jewish learning and Jewish history,” Nir Braudo, Deputy Director at BINA: The Jewish Movement for Social Change said. “Meaningful Jewish learning always links our past with our present – and future. Which is why, every year, we discuss biblical plagues and bring them into context in our lives and communities. This year, when Jewish communities across the world experience the pandemic in their own lives, we are launching a project with our partners that allows our communities to engage with the timely subject of plagues both in history and in contemporary times with a collection of expert speakers.”
The project provides a platform to engage in a healing discussion in a time of global uncertainty. “The Jewish tradition has held and healed our people for centuries. As we live through “unprecedented” times, there is wisdom in locating ourselves in precedent, in stories of plague–biblical, contemporary, and in between–in our effort to meaningfully find our way through,” explained Rabbi Dr. Erin Leib Smokler, editor of Torah in a Time of Plague (Ben Yehuda Press, Spring 2021). “The Plagues Project is a portal to enter that conversation.”
By working together, the groups seek to create a platform for myriad voices on meaningful Jewish themes and texts. “The Plagues Project, as well as our past “Akedah Project” and our upcoming “Megillah Project,” offers both old and new interpretations of Judaism’s cherished texts,” Zoe Fertik, Associate Director of Jewish Content at the Oshman Family JCC in Palo Alto explained. “Torah study never has been and never should be univocal. Now we are not only collecting these many voices in one place, we are also expanding the possibilities for what types of Torah interpretations ‘count.’”
Honoring Jewish tradition, this latest Plagues Project is also a platform for dialogue and debate. “Jews come together over a shared text, and offer dialogue, discussion, debate and criticism – always within the context of a community,” Shira Hecht-Koller, Director of Education at 929 English said. “For us, this is what the Jewish people is all about, and partnering to produce multiple interpretations and perspectives on “plague” – all anchored in a rooted and central text – is a great expression of that. It grounds us in moments of disorientation, such as the one we are currently experiencing.”
Like previous projects, the Plagues Project will be available online. “The digital revolution means that every person today has access to more Jewish information and ideas than any rabbi ever did at any previous time in Jewish history,” Dan Libenson, founder of Judaism Unbound and JewishLIVE, said. “The Plagues Project, along with the Akedah Project a few months ago and the Megillah Project a month or so from now, is a proof of concept for a way to make that information and those ideas as diverse and accessible as possible so that all people will feel invited to participate in the ongoing project of mining our stories and our wisdom tradition for help living the lives we yearn to live today.”
The Plagues Project is brought to you by a unique partnership of five organizations: BINA: The Jewish Movement for Social Change. jewishLIVE, Judaism Unbound, 929 English, and the Oshman Family JCC in Palo Alto.
Brought together by a passion to make Jewish texts and Jewish learning accessible to everyone, and accelerated by the COVID-19 crisis, these four organizations have teamed up to offer new ways of encountering Jewish text and ideas online using a multimedia toolbox in a maximally open sandbox. The greatest strength of this partnership is our ability to showcase a wide range of Jewish thinkers and Jewish ideas. The more perspectives we hold together, the more united we can be. The Plagues Project is being launched in partnership with the Office Of Innovation, which is collecting a series of essays reflecting on living during the period of the Coronavirus, titled Torah From a Time of Plague (forthcoming this year from the Jewish Publication Society).