Documensch March 2024

Hello and welcome to the March 2024 issue of Documensch. As we approach 6 months since October 7, the related discourse is divided between the ongoing crisis in Gaza, and reflections on what October 7 and its aftermath mean for American Jews and the broader world. We strive to bring some clarity and context to all of this.

This month we interviewed Eitan Hersh on his new, 3-part study of Jewish college students. We share a recap of our recent event on The Politics and Meaning of Archives—thanks to all who attended online! And we connect our archival holdings to Franklin Foer’s Atlantic piece on the end of the American Jewish Golden Age.

Also, I want to put a new podcast on your radar: the Association for Jewish Studies just launched Critical Sources, focused on the way Jewish Studies scholarship is produced. The first episode sees 5 scholars converge on a single source. It’s a compelling object lesson on Jewish scholarship and methods. Do check it out (and not because I am a producer on the project).

As always, reach out with feedback, suggestions of articles we should consider sharing, or ideas for documents we should consider archiving. We can be reached at

Thanks for reading,


Ari Y Kelman, Director, Berman Archive

Interview: New Study of Jewish College Students

Earlier this month, Eitan Hersh released a series of studies with the Jim Joseph Foundation focused on college students and the Israel-Hamas War. The research provides new insights on the ways October 7 and the rise of antisemitism have affected Jewish college students. The studies include survey responses from Jewish college students who also participated in a study conducted by Hersh in 2022, giving it a more focused lens on the recent changes to the experience of Jewish college students. We appreciate the rigor and quality of Hersh’s work, and interviewed him to get some insight into his process and observations.

Berman Archive: Tell us about yourself, your background, your current affiliations, and your research interests.

Eitan Hersh: I’m currently a professor at Tufts University, just outside Boston. I’m a political scientist. I specialize in quantitative studies of US voting and civic behavior. My research is mostly about elections, but I dabble in all sorts of topics, including business leadership in politics, health care, religion, and more. Starting about five years ago, I have developed a strong interest in studying antisemitism and Jewish life in America.

How do you hope your work informs or influences Jewish communal organizations?

Jewish community organizations can benefit from a.) more quantitative analysis (e.g., surveys, experiments, social media data, etc) and b.) more work from independent scholars who just want to get the answer right. Coming from studying politics, I sometimes still see campaigns or political organizations that can make investment decisions based on hunches alone or in which decision-making is clouded by ideological commitments. In that world, it’s good to have independent scholars try to test those hunches! Similarly, in the Jewish world, I think that this kind of approach is necessary too.

More specifically related to my work on antisemitism, I would say that this is a particular area where quantitative studies are helpful. That’s because people with different agendas often talk past each other by looking at different pieces of anecdotal evidence. Here, I can do a study and we can all talk about the same results. And if someone doesn’t like the approach I took and think a different approach would lead to a different result, that’s great! Let’s do that study too!

Read the Full Interview

Recap: The Politics and Meaning of Jewish Archives

On March 12, the Berman Archive hosted an online event, “The Politics and Meaning of Jewish Archives.” Eitan Kensky, Curator of Judaica and Hebraica Collections at Stanford Libraries (lower left), moderated the wide-ranging and insightful discussion with Lisa Leff,  Professor of History at American University (upper left); Stefanie Halpern, Director of the Archives at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research (upper right); and the Berman Archive’s Director Ari Y Kelman (lower right).

The conversation covered ways in which Jewish archives have changed, cultural ownership, the connections between collections practices and the Jewish experience, and whether or not preserving Jewish heritage for the broader sake of the commons comes at a cost to the individual and individual experience.

Lisa Leff described how her understanding of Jewish archives has changed through working on her projects—both her own research and writing, and through her work with the US Holocaust Memorial Museum. “When I started writing The Archive Thief, I had a utopian view of what was possible with digitization,” she said, describing visions of boundless possibilities and access. “It’s not actually so simple—you still need a degree of coherence, a place where people would understand to go.” This plays out in her work with the USHMM, which has a vast collection of copies of other collections that cover just the years related to the Holocaust, creating an artificial break in the history. “Any time you’re creating a collection you’re creating a boundary,” she said.

“You can’t take anything for granted,” said Stefanie Halpern in response to a question about the meaning of digital collections. “You can’t assume a description being used 50 or 60 years ago will be useful today,” she said. This observation is meaningful in both directions, Stefanie explained. As YIVO is a third of the way through a project digitizing millions of documents, she realizes that the assumptions she makes today might not compute, saying, “it’s humbling to know that in 50 years someone else is going to be redoing the work we’re doing now.” Digitization of a document or artifact isn’t the end of the archival process. Often it’s the beginning of a process of curating, tagging, and storing. 

This is the crux of so many archives, Jewish and otherwise. “Holding things is good but you need to make it findable,” said Ari Y Kelman. He elaborated a little later in response to a question from Eitan about a theory of the digital commons and whether or not it comes at the expense of the individual. “Expertise, search terms, and the ability of a well-structured archive to have a kind of search expertise is something that is a hedge on the free floating imaginary from the digital commons. Each archive has different expertise and metadata structure.”

Lisa Leff said something that serves as a solid summary of what was an interesting and fruitful event: “What’s special about Jews is that so many different versions of these archives—in Israel, at YIVO, and the Berman Archive—are interested in the multiplicity of ways of defining Jewish peoplehood and each is going to have their own documentation practice.” The meaning of archives, over a long enough timeline, is always in flux.

Tarnishing the American Jewish Golden Age

Franklin Foer’s Atlantic cover story, “The Golden Age of American Jews is Ending,” explores the resurgence of American antisemitism in the wake of the October 7 Hamas attack on Israel. Foer captures some of the ways in which American Jews are encountering antisemitism in places they never expected to: in their public schools and on their college campuses. It is a stark portrait of the contemporary moment.

What it offers in perspective on the contemporary moment, though, it obscures with a framing about an American Jewish “Golden Age.”  Foer’s lament has two dimensions to it: the first is the decline in the cultural and political leadership of American Jews. The second is the relative safety and security felt by American Jews amidst a broader decline in antisemitism in America.

The cultural and political observations are interesting—if not a bit subjective—but if a lack of antisemitism is a precondition for a Golden Age, then a quick look through the Berman Archive reveals a different story in which antisemitism remained a persistent concern for American Jewish organizations.

Throughout the 1950s, the American Jewish Yearbook included a section called “Anti-Jewish Agitation,” focused on the periodic spurts of antisemitism launched at American Jews. This Yearbook article reported on the “international swastika outbreak” of 1959-1960.

This 1961 Anti-Defamation League study of high school students found that “the level of prejudice against Jews is higher than that against any of the other white minority groups included in the study.”

This 1967 Jewish Welfare Board discussion guide included short “trigger” texts on a number of issues facing American Jews. The introduction to the section on antisemitism read, in part, “Now there is little overt anti-Semitism and few cases of the violence that occurred twenty years ago. But much of the brave-new-world spirit of ten years ago is gone, too. Today, anti-Semitism flows a quiet course, hidden, subtle and pervasive, just as harmful — and even harder to fight.”

In 1974, long-time Jewish communal leader, Earl Raab, explained the tension between “the security of the Jew as a citizen” and the slightly more unstable “security of the Jew as an ethnic group.”  Between them, Raab argued, lay an opportunity and a vast need for action.

These are but a few examples of American antisemitism that can be read as a counterpoint to Foer’s “Golden Age,” which suggests that even amidst the cultural prominence of Jewish writers, intellectuals, artists, and politicians, the drum-beat of antisemitism was never far behind.


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