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Young Alumni Profile: Jason Guberman-Pfeffer ’09

Oral History’s Modern Archeologist

Alumnus Jason Guberman-Pfeffer ’09 spoke in the Schine Auditorium in 2014 about his Diarna geo-museum project and the process of digitally mapping Middle Eastern Jewish history. Photo by Tracy Deer-Mirek

by Timothy Deenihan

Listening to stories. Researching stories. Sharing stories. Jason Guberman-Pfeffer ’09 has been doing this for a while.

When a childhood teacher called upon him to give a presentation about Passover, Guberman-Pfeffer “wanted to give a good accounting.” He was 7.

“I was the only Jewish kid in my class,” he says. “Maybe in the school.”

Apparently, expecting a second-grader to articulate the reasons and practices of a several-thousand-year-old tradition did not seem uncommon to the young Guberman-Pfeffer. He simply had a task to perform, and he wanted to do it well.

What neither he nor his teacher could have imagined is the way that assignment would inform what ultimately would become something of a raison d’être for the Sacred Heart alumnus—a passion for deeper exploration and an understanding of the cultural histories and traditions that define who we are.

The journey began within his own faith while he was in high school—where, still, he often was called upon to be an ambassador of his faith. “If I was going to explain what it meant to be Jewish, I was going to have to understand it better myself,” he says. “To understand it better, I was going to have to observe it more fully.”

And so he did. The decision was not without its consequences.

A natural leader and activist, Guberman-Pfeffer was elected class president all four years of high school (and twice at Sacred Heart). In his senior year, he made a campaign promise to secure the best venue possible for the prom. Unfortunately, that venue was only available on a Friday night, which conflicted with his observation of Shabbat, the Jewish day of rest. Guberman-Pfeffer stayed true to his word, however. He secured the venue for his class, though he abstained from attending. This story may seem quaint to adults reflecting on high school’s largely inconsequential trials and tribulations, but it’s an early moment indicative of a generous integrity that infuses Guberman-Pfeffer’s choices. (More on that soon.)

Sacred Heart provided an ideal opportunity for him to dive even deeper into the exploration of the bond between faith and culture, setting him on the path for the work he does today. “I’d always had an interest in the Middle East,” he says. So, given the number of classes he had taken studying all aspects of the region, it was only natural he would be grandfathered in to Middle East Studies, ultimately graduating with a minor in the program.

More than the degree, however, the courses were the start of a conversation. He knew, for example, that there is a 2,500-year history of Jews outside Israel in the Middle East. Yet, there exists an enormous gap in the actual mapping of that culture in the region. How could 2,500 years of culture just escape record?

Curiosity turned to mission and, upon graduation, Guberman-Pfeffer founded Digital Mapping Heritage, a 501(c)3 charity working to weave oral history, classic scholarly research and the tools of modern technology to better understand and articulate the marriage between physical and cultural history. The organization’s flagship project, Diarna (Judeo-Arabic for “Our Homes”), was even featured recently on the cover of Newsweek—above the title on the U.S. edition and as the main cover story internationally.

The main challenge is this: through war, terrorism and age-old cultural animosities, that 2,500-year history is, in large part, only accessible through oral history. Thus, the mission becomes one of finding the people who can tell those stories so Guberman-Pfeffer and his team can research, record and preserve the Sephardic Jewish contribution to the region’s history and culture. (Sephardic refers to Jews of Spain and Portugal, North Africa and the Middle East.)

The task seems endless—documenting the locations of synagogues, schools and shrines; observing the Jewish origins of traditional Iraqi songs; crediting the Jewish family who built the Cairo Market—though time is clearly running out. Last year, for example, the team interviewed a 116-year-old Kurdish rabbi who passed away earlier this year. “This was a man who was born under Ottoman rule in what is now Iraqi Kurdistan,” Guberman-Pfeffer notes. “Think of what he saw in his life. We won’t have opportunities like that for long.”

Indeed, looking at history’s trends, and given that the work is driven primarily through such oral history, Guberman-Pfeffer estimates the project has only a 5- to 10-year window for optimal success. They are currently in year eight.

So, who is this team of “Monument Men” (and women, it should be noted) that Guberman-Pfeffer has gathered for the task? “People are shocked to learn most of our researchers are not Jewish,” he says. There’s an atheist Kurdish Turk, as well as Armenian Christians and Moroccan Muslims. Diarna’s lead photographer, Joshua Shamsi (who is Jewish, with Iraqi Kurdish and European ancestry), led an expedition to Iraqi Kurdistan with another photographer (whose parents are from Japan and Iraq) and an Iraqi Christian driver. The charity’s first outside donor was Karin Douglas ’84, who was born in Germany and awarded Guberman-Pfeffer a legal scholarship when he was an undergraduate. The list is as long as each individual’s reasons. Some enjoy the technological challenge, while others relish the historical. Some have ties to the traditions since childhood. Some are dismayed that those ties were denied them growing up.

All are focused, however, on one mission: creating a data layer that had been missing and otherwise would be lost for good.

Which brings us around to that generous integrity. Though the current focus of Guberman-Pfeffer and his team—including students at Wellesley College, an early and continuing partner—is to research and record the Sephardic Jewish history of the Middle East, the team decided early on not to incorporate Diarna. That is to say, the technology is applicable—and available—across the board. Stories of the Cambodian genocide, African refugees or Christian communities in the Middle East (to name but a few examples) could benefit from the same processes and technology. The implications from a human rights perspective are enormous.

“Diarna is inclusive work. These are people of good will,” Guberman-Pfeffer says, proud of his team and seemingly unaware that he is the reason they have come together. In a world increasingly separated by our differences, Guberman-Pfeffer and his team are unified by them. Like finding like. Good will finding good will.

In addition to running Diarna, Guberman-Pfeffer serves as the executive director of the American Sephardi Federation at the Center for Jewish History.

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An abandoned synagogue in Moknine, Tunisia where Diarna research was documented in summer 2016 – photo by Chrystie Sherman

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Guberman-Pfeffer speaks about Diarna sites in Morocco at the Center for Jewish History in 2016. Photo by Chrystie Sherman