The Jews of Kentucky: A History Worth Exploring

The Kentucky Jewish History Symposium sees opportunities for fascinating scholarship

Today’s guest post comes from our friends and colleagues at the University of Kentucky, who are conducting and supporting new research on Jewish Kentucky and developing a cutting-edge oral history collection focused on Jewish life in the state. Thanks to graduate student Caitlin Johnson for putting this post together!

When one considers Kentucky Jewish history, what comes to mind? Well, here are some of the things that should:

A Kentuckian’s conversion to Judaism, which prompts a lifetime of community engagement.

Raising the bar for forest preservation and sustainability.

A Civil Rights Movement experience that fosters a lifelong commitment to social justice.

Taking a crazy risk to pioneer one of the most successful family-owned bourbon distilleries in the United States.

These are just a few of the stories that Dr. Beth Goldstein and Dr. Janice W. Fernheimer of the University of Kentucky are proud to share in the upcoming Kentucky Jewish History Symposium on April 12th and 13th of this year. Because right now, too few people know these stories, and there’s little comprehensive scholarship on Kentucky Jewish History.

There are some academic books on the topic – foundational scholarship such as Lee Shai Weissbach’s The Synagogues of Kentucky and Jewish Life in Small-Town America: A History, Deborah Weiner’s Coalfield Jews: An Appalachian History, Amy Shevitz’s Jewish Communities on the Ohio River, Rosie Moosnick’s Arab and Jewish Women in Kentucky: Stories of Accommodation and Audacity  are complemented by local histories such as Carol Ely’s Jewish Louisville: Portrait of a Community. But personal accounts form most of the basis of these narratives; when it comes to research and exploration, there’s so much more historic work to be done.

KJHS co-conveners Dr. Janice W. Fernheimer and Dr. Beth Goldstein hope the Kentucky Jewish History Symposium will highlight both the powerful and unique experiences of Jewish individuals who have left their mark on Kentucky’s Jewish communities, and the need for a more comprehensive scholarship on Kentucky’s Jewish narratives. The Symposium will begin on Thursday, April 12th with a keynote talk by Dr. Rabbi Gary P. Zola as a way to contextualize the Kentucky Jewish experience in light of American and transnational trends in Jewish history. Friday’s sessions bring together scholars, activists, community leaders, and University of Kentucky students for a series of panel and poster discussions focused on oral histories and archival practices with the goal of highlighting contemporary projects and issues. Panel topics include “Kentucky Jewish History and Context,” “Building Kentucky’s Archives and Collections,” and “JHFE Jewish Kentucky Oral History Project: A Model for Sustainable Stewardship.”

This event would not be possible without the Jewish Heritage Fund for Excellence and the Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History. The Jewish Heritage Fund for Excellence (JHFE) is a non-profit organization based in Louisville, KY that began by supporting local healthcare initiatives. The organization has expanded its mission to include “fostering a strong, vibrant Jewish community” in Louisville and beyond, and UK is proud to celebrate the establishment of the JHFE Jewish Kentucky Oral History Collection with this event. (Follow the link to browse the collection!) The Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History at the University of Kentucky, which houses the JHFE interviews, is a leader in its field with a collection of nearly 10,000 interviews.

All are welcomed to take a trip to the heart of the bluegrass this spring and experience the stories that define Jewish life in Kentucky and the South. For more information and free registration, please visit https://jewishstudies.as.uky.edu/kjhs.

You can also learn more about Kentucky Jewish History through the ISJL’s own Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Communities!

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