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UBC expands Jewish studies with $1 million gift

Gregg Gardner and Maya Porebska-Smith

The University of British Columbia (UBC) is poised to expand its Jewish studies offerings thanks to a $1 million donation from the Diamond Foundation, a Vancouver-based charitable organization that has given money to numerous causes throughout the city.

The funds will allow Gregg Gardner, the Diamond chair in Jewish law and ethics, to bring in higher-profile speakers and visiting scholars, and to support Judaic academic study and research locally and in Israel.

Gregg Gardner

Gardner has been organizing public talks at Hillel BC and academic lectures on campus and in the broader community since he accepted the position in 2011. In 2018, he partnered with the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in an archaeological field school for UBC students at the Horvat Midras dig site in Israel. Students excavated an ancient pyramid that marked a tomb and an elaborate underground system of tunnels and caves that served as hideouts for Jewish rebels fighting the Romans in the second century C.E.

“This gift allows me to maintain what I’ve been doing and frees up my time so I don’t have to be looking for funding,” Gardner said. “I’ll be able to bring in more and higher-profile speakers, as well as more people from Israel, where they can lecture both at UBC and to the public. This is a way to bring Jewish studies scholarship not just to campus and the Jewish community, but more broadly to Vancouver.”

Gardner said the funding will also make it more affordable for students to attend the next archaeological field trip, which is scheduled for next summer. “The last time we did this, I expected nine applications and we received 25,” he recalled. “There’s been a lot of interest in this trip and because we collaborate with Hebrew University and our students get to excavate alongside theirs, they end up getting a very full cultural experience in Israel.”

Gregg Gardner takes a break during the archeological dig

Gage Averill, the dean of UBC’s faculty of arts, said the funding is a step in the right direction toward the creation of a new centre for Jewish studies at UBC, which comes with a $10 million price tag. “Our goal is to create a program of Jewish studies that will allow students to take a minor in this field,” he explained.

“With a centre, we can project to the world that we have a number of faculty engaged in Jewish research. The centre would help with programming, enlarge our library collection, capture intellectual activity, hold conferences and organize activities, and provide a base for scholars working together. It will also give us a chance to project that UBC is emerging as a leader in the field in Canada and North America.”

Averill is working on a proposal for the centre, which is augmented by research into student demand. He said there is great demand for courses related to Holocaust studies, and good attendance in Jewish studies courses, which range from the study of ecumenical texts to archaeology.

“But I think we can build that by growing the study of religions at UBC and thereby attracting students to build the classes,” he said. “We want to take Jewish studies, which is about religion, music, politics, identity and culture, and connect it to the areas of study in UBC’s faculty of arts, so that we don’t have a hole where we can’t deal analytically with important issues in the world. This is essential to UBC’s mission.”

While Averill acknowledges there’s a long road ahead, he believes it’s something worth doing. “If we can build the capacity through the centre, we’ll be able to grow, move ahead the dialogue in Jewish studies and bring our faculty together to engage with colleagues and similar programs all over the world,” he said. “We only have to look at the discourse going on in the world and the continuing presence of anti-Semitism to understand how important it is to have a perspective on Jewish studies, and to do it well.”

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