On March 16, the evening before her first work-from-home day, Larisa Klebe, Director of Nishmah, thought to herself: “What’s something I can do to engage the Nishmah community on a regular basis while we can’t gather for in-person programming, and which will provide inspiration, hope and comfort during this difficult time?” To answer this question, she turned to what she knows, history—more specifically, Jewish women’s history. Thus was born, Jewish Women Get Stuff Done (JWGSD), a Facebook live series about historical Jewish women.
Each short video draws upon resources from the Jewish Women’s Archive, and covers a different historical Jewish woman. She picks subjects who are relatively less well-known (as-in, not Ruth Bader Ginsburg) because part of the goal is introducing the community to historical figures with whom they may not be familiar. She picks women from all different time periods, geographic regions and professional backgrounds in an effort to demonstrate the breadth of Jewish women’s history and inspire viewers with the sheer vastness of Jewish women’s accomplishments.
While not every woman has a direct lesson to teach us about the COVID-19 pandemic, in a difficult moment like this it’s both empowering and uplifting to see examples of people in history who recognized injustice, or a need that wasn’t being filled, and did something about it, often navigating challenging circumstances in the process. Some featured women include Rose Schneiderman, an early 20th century labor activist who transformed the lives of American workers; Ray Frank, who made history in 1890 as the first woman to formally preach from a pulpit in the United States; and Gertrude Elion, a Nobel Prize-winning chemist who helped develop the first chemotherapy for childhood leukemia, the first effective anti-viral medication, AZT, and treatments for many other diseases. There’s something for everyone, which is also why Larisa believes it’s worthwhile and important for everyone, not just Jewish women, to know this history.
As someone with a public history background, Larisa strongly believes that history holds the power to help us navigate the complexity of our everyday lives, to speak directly to current issues, and to embolden and empower us to take positive action. “Bringing it to Jewish women in particular, it’s rare we see ourselves represented in historical narratives. Why does this matter? As the saying goes, ‘I cannot be what I cannot see.’” In other words, representation matters, and when Jewish women are introduced to the long line of Jewish women change-makers from history, and start to see themselves as part of that history, it can expand their views on what they feel is possible for them. When it comes down to it, that is really the core of JWGSD.
When Larisa first started the series two months ago, she had no idea how the series would be received; she wasn’t sure if videos about Jewish women’s history would capture anyone’s attention. Season 1, which comprised 21 episodes, has received nearly 1,500 views, and sparked some wonderful sharing and discussion. For instance, when she discussed Beatrice Alexander, founder of the Madame Alexander Doll Company, a couple people commented that they themselves had these dolls growing up, and even shared pictures of them with the group. Similarly, the video about Lizzie Black Kander, author of The Settlement Cookbook, received this great comment: “I got a copy of the cookbook as one of my wedding shower gifts. It’s falling apart!” Some of Larisa’s favorite comments are from those who learned about someone for the first time through one of the videos.
Jewish Women Get Stuff Done, season 2, premiered Tuesday, June 16 at 10am. It lives in Nishmah’s Facebook group, and airs every Tuesday and Thursday.