Meet our Volunteers: Lael Dalal
Lael Dalal first began volunteering at AJHS-NEA on a whim in 2012. “I had just graduated from Simmons [College, in Boston] with my undergrad in history,” she says, “and was thinking about the next steps.” Suspecting that archives could be a fun and interesting field, she searched online for Jewish historical organizations in the Boston area. Finding AJHS-NEA, she contacted Director Judi Garner to ask if she could volunteer. Garner “was very welcoming and supportive of my interests,” Lael says. At the time she began her volunteer work, AJHS-NEA was processing the Records of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, which contains both intimate and legal details of Jewish immigrants’ journeys to America. Lael was, she now says, hooked. “Some of the most incredible documents I have ever seen were in this collection: stories would unfold with each page of families and individuals trying to get out of Europe before, during, and after World War II. Some letters were on the behalf of people in concentration camps written to distant family members in America, asking for affidavits and money to get the person to a safe country. Some of the correspondence was from these relatives who didn’t want to be contacted, and then you would find letters to the relative notifying them of their death.”
Lael is not a stranger to family tragedy and the difficult immigration stories woven throughout Jewish history. Though she was born in New Hampshire, her father came to the United States as a young man from Israel, where his family had settled after fleeing persecution in Iraq.
She identifies strongly with her Middle Eastern heritage. “When I tell people I am Jewish, sometimes I think they get the wrong idea – they think my family originated from Europe and came to America a couple of generations ago,” she explains. Iraq, she notes, “was a great place for Jews for centuries but in more modern times it became a very hostile environment for them. Now, only a small handful of people in Iraq identify as Jewish. A great uncle of mine was actually hung, along with other Jews, and my grandparents moved to Israel for safety.” Since her grandmother died suddenly several years ago, Lael has been very interested in learning about her grandparents’ lives, and, through them, the larger history of Iraqi Jews and the Middle East.
Lael also shares a personal connection to the regional history she encounters at AJHS-NEA; her mother’s family has roots in Massachusetts.
Currently, Lael is a graduate student in Library Science at Simmons, concentrating in Archives. Having completed an internship at AJHS-NEA, she says, she continues to volunteer because the work and the support of AJHS-NEA staff allow her to learn new skills. She is looking forward to processing a large collection, after working on smaller ones, and branching out with other projects, including the digital archive.
But her favorite part, she says, is “definitely getting to find little treasures: forgotten photographs, letters, postcards, and diaries. I love the feeling you get after doing a little research and figuring out the context of an item in the collection. Getting to see or figure out someone’s secrets, no matter how small, will never get old.”