Eastern Europe's rich resources for the study of Jewish history and culture were by and large inaccessible throughout most of the Soviet era. Most collections of Jewish books, documents, and other artifacts in Russia and Ukraine languished, uncataloged and off-limits to scholars. There were tantalizing hints that important collections had survived the cataclysms of the twentieth century, but their contents and physical condition could only be guessed at.
Over the decades, the study of Jewish history and culture had been increasingly repressed in the USSR. By the time Communism fell, there were very few scholars, archivists, or librarians in Russia and Ukraine with the knowledge to study, catalog, and care for these collections. There were few academics or librarians proficient in Yiddish or Hebrew, the language of many of the books and documents in the archives.
In 1991, YIVO and the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS), seeing the opportunity to make a unique contribution to the effort to rescue Jewish archival collections and resuscitate Jewish Studies in the former USSR, founded Project Judaica.
In cooperation with the Russian State University for the Humanities in Moscow (RSUH), Project Judaica trains students as specialists in Jewish Studies. The five-year program stresses either Bible and rabbinics (JTS track) or Yiddish and East European Jewish history (YIVO track). Some students in the program also earn credits by working as interns in the YIVO Archives in New York. To date, 65 students have graduated from the program. Graduates have gone on to pursue doctoral studies and advanced research in Jewish studies and/or to jobs in Jewish education and communal service. Project Judaica is directed by JTS faculty.
Project Judaica also includes a Jewish Archival Survey, directed by Marek Web, YIVO Senior Research Scholar, formerly Chief Archivist. The goal of the project is to prepare comprehensive guides to Jewish archival records throughout the former USSR. A guide to the Moscow archives was issued in 1997, and a Belarus guide was issued in 2000. The guides enable researchers throughout the world to locate materials on topics of interest to them in the former USSR.