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Sunday, September 21, 2014

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Centres for Jewish studies thrive at Toronto universities

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Some of the student volunteers at the U of T Centre for Jewish Studies’ conference on “The Trial of Adolf Eichmann: Retrospect and Prospect” Conference in September 2012 are back row, from left, Ben Shakinovsky, Tomasz Frydel, Jonathan Neufeld, Jordan Stone, Michael Alguire and Jordan Ouellette; front row, Kambale Nziwa, Danielle Willard, Laurie Drake, Emily Springgay and Kirk Morrow.

At the newly renovated Centre for Jewish Studies (CJS) in the Jackman Humanities Building at University of Toronto, complete with a kosher kitchen and funky orange acrylic chairs, Prof. Jeffrey Kopstein, the centre’s new director, is elated about the recently announced  $5-million gift to the Centre, by Ken and Larry Tanenbaum, co-chairs of an $18-million community campaign at U of T, in partnership with UJA Federation of Greater Toronto.

Roz and Ralph Halbert joined the Tanenbaum family with their gift of $1 million to the centre through UJA Federation’s community campaign.

In July, Kopstein, a political science professor, signed on for a five-year term as director of the centre, home to 72 faculty members affiliated with the program and 4,000 students who enrolled in 91 Jewish studies courses last year.

Kopstein, who also teaches an introductory course in Jewish studies, said that approximately 80 per cent of these students are from non-Jewish backgrounds. He hopes that, for some of his non-Jewish students, the course will be a “gateway to a lifelong learning of Jewish civilization.”

The goals of the centre are neither religious nor political, but rather scholarly, Kopstein said. “The Jewish studies courses are too important to limit them to one area in the university. The idea [of the centre] is not to ghettoize Jewish studies, but rather to integrate ourselves across the faculty.”

The centre combines four areas of interest – classical Judaism, Jewish philosophy and thought, Jewish history and social sciences, and Jewish cultures, languages and literatures. The year-round, free CJS public lectures series is designed to integrate some or all of these areas.

The series gathers experts from around the world who offer a presentation on issues that should appeal to both students and the greater Jewish community. Kopstein believes that the CJS public lecture series is an important part of the centre’s ongoing mandate “to build bridges to the community.”

Although the series has already begun, lectures by author Nathan Englander, American diplomat Dennis Ross, Prof. Judith Deutsch Kornblatt of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and Ruth Gavison, one of Israel’s leading legal minds, are slated for this fall.

The Israel and Golda Koschitzky Centre for Jewish Studies (CJS) at York University also boasts a free spring lecture series, the Leonard Wolinsky Lectures on Jewish Life and Education. The centre is experiencing tremendous growth, says Prof. Sara Horowitz, director of the Koschitzky Centre since 2005. A large endowment from the Koschitzky family in 2008 has allowed the centre to expand programming for both students and the community at large.

A symposium highlighting the poems and novels of Hans Adler, a German Jewish survivor of Theresienstadt and Auschwitz, will be held Nov. 11 and 12. Although this symposium is intended for research and scholars, there will be two free plenary sessions open to the public.

 Another compelling initiative at York’s CJS is the Mark and Gail Appel Program in Holocaust and Antiracism Education – “Learning from the Past, Teaching for the Future,” which brings together 15 York University students, mostly future teachers, with students from Germany and Poland to learn first-hand about the Holocaust.

“We want to engage in the Holocaust, to learn from the past and plant seeds for a better future,” Horowitz said of this scholarship program. “What makes [this program] so wonderful is not only learning how to morph against antisemitism and racism, but equally important is how students learn to talk across cultures and respect each other’s point of view.”

For more information, go to www.cjsutoronto.ca, the U of T Centre for Jewish Studies  website, or www.yorku.ca, the Israel and Golda Koschitzky Centre for Jewish Studies at York  University.

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