The New Geography of Jewish Studies

With a $20 million gift, the University of Michigan creates a research center that may shift the field.
February 25, 2005

The University of Michigan announced this week that it would create a new research center on Jewish studies -- with ambitious goals for changing the discipline.

The center will bring 14 scholars annually to Ann Arbor, where they will have yearlong fellowships to do research and write. Each year, the center will pick a theme for fellows, but the themes will be sufficiently broad so that scholars who focus on a range of historical periods and disciplines will be brought together.

Todd Endelman, professor of history at Michigan and director of the university's Jewish studies program, said that a theme for a year might be Jewish political behavior in times of crisis. Scholars might specialize in ancient, medieval and modern times and might come from disciplines of history, literature, classics or philosophy.

"We're going to create a close circle of people who are in daily contact," with the idea that there will be "extraordinary benefits" to the scholars of interacting with one another, Endelman said.

Michigan expects the center to change the geography of Jewish studies in several ways. Most Jewish studies programs have been dominated by American and Israeli scholars, Endelman said. But Michigan's fellowships -- besides reaching out to those groups -- will also go to some of the European scholars who have revitalized Jewish studies there in the last decade.

In addition, he said that Jewish studies has historically been most dominant on the East. Indeed the only comparable research center in the field is at the University of Pennsylvania.

"This is part of a decentralization of Jewish studies," he said. "The centers of Jewish studies are not just New York and Boston."

Michigan's Jewish studies program already has 16 full-time faculty members, so the university expects this rotating influx of talent to create a hub in the field. The new fellowships, which will start in 2007, are being financed by a $20 million gift from Samuel and Jean Frankel, Michigan alumni with a long history of giving to the university.

Judith R. Baskin, president of the Association for Jewish Studies, said a gift of that size to the field is "virtually unprecedented," and could have a major impact.

Baskin, director of Jewish studies at the University of Oregon, said that because the field is highly interdisciplinary, a center like the one Michigan is creating would be particularly popular with scholars.


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