Lessons from Center on Jewish Studies
by Egon Mayer

[Fall 2001]

CUNY Graduate Center

Jewish Studies got its start more than a century ago through bible studies taught by Christian priests in this country. Later on, five universities including Yeshiva and Brandeis, were established to help educate Jewish teachers for their community.

To provide social services to the Jews in this country, federations, regional bodies  which raised money to support a vast network of voluntary agencies needed a large number of trained personnel. The traditional Hebrew colleges were not equipped to provide such social work and Jewish cultural training, so a partnership is needed to combine the two. 

In addition, the theological training for Jewish youngsters stopped around their teens, exposing a huge void in the traditional training of Jewish young people. The introduction of Jewish studies to college campuses, where more than 95% of Jewish youths between the ages of 18 to 22 attend, created a much needed program for more than 250,000 Jewish students. 

The impetus for its growth and rapid expansion in this country actually came as an aftermath of the six day war, which started the rebirth of Jewish Studies in America. At the same time, when the Civil Rights movement in this country began to focus on Black consciousness, the alienated Jewish activists were motivated to look into their own Jewish roots.  In 1966, fifty professionals gathered at Brandeis University to discuss the establishment of Jewish Studies. By now, more than three thousand professors are members of this group. 

At CUNY, the consortial nature of campus relationship and the territorial jealousy of different programs sometimes can make coordination a challenge. At the same time, the support from the University is limited to the provision of office space and the release time of a single course for the director. This make it a necessity that programs be self-supporting. The Center for Jewish Studies at CUNY was fortunate to have Irving Howe, a renowned author and scholar to initiate the proposal. His name alone was sufficient to draw in enthusiastic support, financially and politically. 

In closing, Prof. Mayer pointed out to the audience that the key to an institute's success is whether or not there is a real need for it, and whether or not it can be sustained. He suggested that AAHEC reach out to David Levine, who is in charge of public programs at the Graduate Center to help publicize AAHEC activities such as the Lecture series. "Among the expanded audience", he concluded with a smile, "we might find some donors with deep pockets."

Synopsis by Thomas Tam




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