Jewish studies celebrates 40 years at Emory

By April Hunt | Emory Report | Nov. 28, 2016

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Established in 1976, Emory's Jewish studies program is a model for interdisciplinary scholarship. Known as the Tam Institute for Jewish Studies since 1999, the program marks its 40th anniversary with a series of events Dec. 4.

In 1976, Emory established a Jewish studies program at what was then a regional, and very Methodist, university. In the four decades since, the program has helped provide the groundwork for the interdisciplinary focus that is now a hallmark of Emory College as an exceptional institution for liberal arts education within a nationally ranked research university.

Known as the Tam Institute for Jewish Studies (TIJS) since 1999, the program will celebrate its successes and 40th anniversary with a Community of Scholars Showcase featuring a series of events on Dec. 4 in the Cox Hall Ballroom.

“Jewish studies was never meant to be studied in a vacuum, and from the beginning the program at Emory was developed to resonate with those interested in all aspects of the humanities and social sciences,” says Eric Goldstein, Judith London Evans Director of TIJS and an associate professor of history. “We can relish that legacy of scholarly engagement when we see what we’ve grown into.”

Key hires set the course for interdisciplinary growth

The effort began in 1976, when the university questioned why its religion department taught only Christianity.

A national search led to the hiring of religion professor David R. Blumenthal, a trained rabbi and renowned scholar who has held the Jay and Leslie Cohen Chair in Judaic Studies since it was established 40 years ago.

Shortly after Blumenthal arrived, Emory also hired professors Kenneth W. Stein, an expert on the history of Israel and the Middle East, and Oded Borowski, a Biblical archaeologist who helped lay the foundation for Emory’s Hebrew language program.

Emory also went on to hire Deborah E. Lipstadt as the Dorot Professor of Modern Jewish History and Holocaust Studies, before her battle with a Holocaust denier in a British court made her internationally known as a defender of history.

 “We took broadening our intellectual growth seriously at a time of a general shift in the university as a whole,” Blumenthal says.

Anniversary celebrates campus, community connections

The 40th anniversary festivities will celebrate the Institute for Jewish Studies' deep connections on campus and in the community.

After all, the Jewish studies program started with seed money from the Cohen family and the Atlanta Jewish Welfare Federation, as well as the Methodist Church. The Arthur M. Blank Foundation later donated funding for the institute, naming it in honor of Atlanta Rabbi Donald A. Tam.

Goldstein has been part of the Emory community since earning his bachelor’s degree in Jewish studies from Emory in 1992 — when some of his now-colleagues were his professors.

“I remember being in high school looking at one of those big books that profile colleges and universities. The entry for Emory said that the most popular course on campus was 'The History of Israel' with Ken Stein,” Goldstein says. “It sounded like my kind of place.”

By emerging as an interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary program, the institute has grown to 19 core faculty members who specialize not only in religion but also view Jewish civilization from the perspectives of history, literature, anthropology and politics, among other fields of study.

The program’s breadth allows it not only to support an undergraduate major and minor, but also the training of doctoral students in many disciplines related to Jewish studies.

Emory offers one of the nation’s leading institutes in Jewish studies, with hundreds of students regularly enrolling in its courses in addition to those who choose to specialize in the field, Goldstein says.

“Because Jews have lived all over the world, and their history spans so many time periods, the study of Jewish life is a window to so much of world civilization,” he says.

The institute also has sponsored an increasing number of academic programs and community events, such as the upcoming showcase.

For instance, last spring it held a forum examining Jewish-Muslim relations following the Paris terrorist attacks. During the presidential campaign this fall, it drew a large crowd to a session entitled “Closing the Gates, Building a Wall,” which applied the history of immigration restriction against Jews to current nativism issues.

“Jews are a group that can be studied religiously, culturally, ethnically, sociologically, so as Jewish studies scholars we have had a head start in knowing different ways to address a question,” Blumenthal says. “Our world is multicultural now and our contribution is the ability to know that way of looking at the world.”