Jewish Studies Program Launches Innovative Project

April 17, 2009

Molly Tarantino,

WELLESLEY, Mass. -- On a dusty side-street in Tunis, above a solitary locked doorway, one can still see a faded Hebrew plaque. This is all that remains of the tomb of Chief Rabbi Messaoud Raphael el Fassi. In December 2008, Ali Kaba, a West African-Muslim undergraduate, located this 18th-century plaque on a research expedition for Diarna.

Diarna — “our homes” in Judeo-Arabic— is a joint-initiative of the Wellesley College Jewish Studies Program and Digital Heritage Mapping, a nonprofit specializing in virtual documentation of global cultural heritage sites. The initiative harnesses new global image mapping technology to virtually memorialize Jewish heritage sites from Saharan outposts to Kurdish villages.

Operating in an area often characterized by political and sectarian strife, Diarna is a multinational and interfaith collaboration among scholars and tour guides, technical experts who code and design the Diarna platform, young photographers and researchers who travel in the region collecting material and Middle Eastern youth eager to map virtual common ground. Together they locate hundreds of sites, collect archival and contemporary photographs and films, interview elderly community residents and assemble a multimedia layer in Google Earth to share this material in a myriad of popular educational formats.

“I have never heard that Jews were living in Sudan,” a young Sudanese on a Diarna YouTube video featuring footage of Khartoum’s abandoned Jewish cemetery commented. “Come on be real, man. This is not Sudan.”

Wellesley faculty and students have been involved in the project even before a formal partnership between the Jewish Studies Program and Digital Heritage Mapping was forged. Professor of Jewish Studies Frances Malino was an early supporter of Diarna, serving as a founding board member of Digital Heritage Mapping. Interns Michele Bornstein ’11 and Sharel Itzkovich ’11 are currently researching Egyptian and Iraqi sites. This past summer, senior Alma Heckman went to Tunisia on a research expedition and junior Yael Misrahi researched the Jewish communities of Aleppo and Damascus. “I saw firsthand how synagogues and other Jewish sites are maintained and met with members of the Tunisian Jewish community, the owner of a Kosher restaurant in la Goulette and the caretakers of the main synagogue in Djerba,” Heckman said.

Since 1875, Wellesley College has been a leader in providing an excellent liberal arts education for women who will make a difference in the world. Its 500-acre campus near Boston is home to 2,300 undergraduate students from all 50 states and 68 countries.