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Student and community collaboration results in written history

photo of Jewish Community book
A History of the Jewish Community in Reading and Berks

With the help of the Laboratory for Public Scholarship and Democracy at Penn State Berks, more than 25 students at Penn State Berks partnered with the Jewish Cultural Center/Jewish Federation of Reading and with hundreds of members of the local Jewish community to document and preserve some of the community’s history. The collaboration between classes and the public has resulted in a printed book entitled A History of the Jewish Community in Reading and Berks County

Students in two classes and several students doing independent studies, all led by Dr. Laurie Grobman, Professor of English and Women’s Studies, wrote articles or other features in the book. Students from American Studies, Communication Arts and Sciences, Global Studies and Professional Writing took an interdisciplinary upper-level course, Community-Based Learning: Writing Local Jewish History, in Fall 2010, that focused on the writing of local Jewish histories. These students wrote chapters on such topics as  businesses, anti-Semitism, synagogues, and military service. They used a variety of historical sources, including interviews with hundreds of community members.

In addition, six students in Spring 2011 English 202H, Honors Writing in the Humanities, wrote life histories of Holocaust survivors with connections to Berks by watching several videotapes of survivors housed at the Albright College Library in Reading. This course helped students understand the context and meaning of testimonies by examining the Holocaust through several humanities perspectives including history, oral history, museum studies, literature, and film.

This project is what is known in higher education as community-based undergraduate research, a form of instruction that links students, faculty, and community organizations to fill a community need. While these students are not professional historians, their work as historians is a significant foundation upon which to build as the Jewish community preserves its history.

The book was funded by the Howard O. and Jean Beaver Endowment for Community Service with some support from the Jewish Federation of Reading.

A History of the Jewish Community in Reading and Berks County can be picked up at the Jewish Cultural Center. For more information, please contact Dr. Laurie Grobman at LEG8@psu.edu.

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