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Laura Henley Harrison – Jewish History Association of South Wales (JHASW)

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I began volunteering with the JHASW 18 months ago as a researcher.  My current commitment is researching the lives of Holocaust victims whose names appear on the memorial tablet in Cardiff Reform Synagogue.  The JHASW received a grant to research and write a narrative piece for each of the 102 individuals listed which will then be published online.  This project is nearing completion, and I will have personally researched and written 11 narratives.

Before the closure of museums and archives due to Covid-19, I was also involved in searching the archives in the Rhondda Heritage Park Museum in Trehafod.  A small team of volunteers would go once a week to search the archives for anything which reflected the lives of the Jewish community in the Rhondda.  We would then make a note of these items and update them on the museum computer system so that anyone searching for specifically Jewish items and history could access them easily.  I hope to continue this work once we can access the museums again.

I have also been given the opportunity to take part in online talks about our work, which I have found very rewarding, although extremely nerve wracking!

I have been offered (and accepted) a lot of training in various areas to support my roles, including the safe handling of archival materials, and the correct ways to list items in the various digital archives we work with across South Wales.  This has proven to be a challenge with closures of these institutions, but the JHASW has adapted and has offered these courses online with face-to-face training and support via Zoom or Microsoft Teams, and practical assignments we can carry out at home.

My next step is to begin training as an oral testimony interviewer to document the life and history of the South Wales Jewish Community.

I first became aware of the JHASW when I saw a poster for an exhibition and a series of talks which were being held to accompany this.  I visited the exhibition in Cardiff and attended a talk by Stanley Soffa in Porth Library where I also met Klavdija Erzen (Project Manager).   I studied Religious Studies at University, graduating in 2001, and the focus of my degree was Judaism.  Following University, I spent 2 years working as a volunteer in a Holocaust Museum in Richmond, Virginia as an exhibit researcher.  Upon returning home I eventually moved from the Midlands to South Wales and although I had always wanted to work in the heritage sector, it was extremely difficult to get a job here and especially in such a niche subject.  It felt like most of the museums in South Wales were dedicated to its strong mining heritage, and I also learned that although there had been a Jewish community once, it was no longer in existence in the Valleys where I lived.  Life carried on, I began working for the Church in Wales, then left to have my family and I have always had shelves of books and mountains of folders of Holocaust and Jewish related research, but I just had no way to apply my passion to my day-to-day life.

When I found out about the existence of the JHASW, I was excited about the prospect of becoming involved with their work.  I spoke with Klavdija after the talk and she was so helpful and accommodating.  She informed me that a new project was coming up and to keep in touch.  She invited me to the Glamorgan Archives to discuss which parts of the project I would be interested in working on – there were several options available for volunteers, and Klavdija was more than happy to let the volunteers choose where they felt they fit the best.  I am extremely fortunate that I have the hours to dedicate to volunteering, I know not everyone has that luxury – but I have always volunteered due to the fact work in such a specialist field is so very limited.

Judaism, Holocaust research and education have always been a passion of mine, and after I finished at the museum in the USA, it has felt like there was a hole in my purpose. I am not wanting to sound too dramatic, but volunteering with the JHASW has made me feel like myself again. It has given me a drive, and new goals and I feel excited about the prospect of what is coming next.  I have made new friends, and the mental and emotional benefit of being part of a group with similar knowledge and interests can never be underestimated.  I have been offered the chance to grow my skill set and update my knowledge should I wish to pursue a career in the museum sector going forward.  I have been allowed to throw myself into projects and talks which have built up my self-esteem and confidence – 18 years out of the industry can give you quite a knock and leave you wondering if your knowledge and opinions and skills are still valid.  The JHASW could not have been more accommodating and helpful.  I have always wanted to write articles for publication in journals but lacked the confidence to do this myself.  I have been given 1-1 support, lists of relevant contacts and access to academics in the Jewish community who are helping me achieve this goal.  My first article is due to be published in July, and it is an incredible feeling.  I could not have done this without being a volunteer and the knowledge and support that has surrounded me since I began.  I have never heard the word ‘no’ to anything I have wanted to try.  I have received nothing but encouragement and concern if I ever need extra time or support while juggling volunteering and family life.  The JHASW has completely changed the direction of my life, and I am hoping to become a more official part of their team with a paid position in the coming months – this is something that I had never thought possible when I began volunteering, so you never know what doors will open for you, and how your life can change.  I consider myself very lucky to have been offered this opportunity.

Apart from the impact that volunteering has had for me personally, I like to hope that the work has had a positive impact on the community around me.  It has been a privilege to work with the descendants of Holocaust survivors and to learn the family histories of those who left their ashes in Europe.  Our work has allowed these histories to be preserved and, in many cases, bring information and even new relatives to light that people did not know about.  To be able to just sit and listen to these stories of love and loss is both humbling and inspirational.  We are regularly thanked by descendants for taking an interest in their family history and preserving their stories – they do not understand that it is really our privilege that they have discussed something so deeply personal and painful with a complete stranger.  The Jewish Community in South Wales is growing ever smaller, but they have openly welcomed our group of researchers, and I have even been invited to attend Zoom Synagogue services which have been a wonderful experience. I hope that the recording and documenting of all Jewish stories (not just those relating to the Holocaust Memorial Board) from this area will have a positive impact – that it will bring to light a near forgotten history of a group of people who were once a large part of the thriving wider South Wales Community.

Whenever I speak to people like me, who have struggled to get to work within their chosen subject, I always tell them to volunteer.  Discover a group which shares your interests, and you will find that they can always use free help.

Volunteering is an opportunity to surround yourself with something that you love, you find your tribe there, the people who share your passions, and this can only benefit you and the wider community around you.  Everyone should try it.

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