The discussions with representatives from the Phyllis Backer Foundation about funding a new position in modern Jewish Studies were substantive and to the point about the future of Jewish Studies as a broad area of study and the specific academic strengths, configurations, and needs at Syracuse University. At no point were politics raised. While “Jewish identity” was raised, very little was said about it. The only definite point raised and accepted without question on that score was that “Jewishness” is an object of study whose interest is universal, not a criterion for filling the position.
We will almost definitely be looking for a young tenure-track colleague in American Judaism, whose home will be in the Department of Religion. With the job market in the Humanities being what it is, this is itself news. I’ll post the job announcement when it comes out in the late summer or fall of 2018, but I’m putting up this article now. It originally appeared here., I’m sharing now, one, to get the word out, but also because the article is an interesting little document in its own right. The article announcing the position put out by SU indicates the right kind of language that goes into a University statement such as this.
On a personal note, I deeply enjoyed the synergy of conversations with and between foundation representatives, administration people at the College, and Jewish Studies and Religion faculty. I am proud of and grateful for the support from Karin Ruhlandt, our dean of the College, and the generous support from Len Elman and the Phyllis Backer Foundation for the no-strings-attached gift to the Jewish Studies Program reflecting unambiguous commitment to innovative work in the Humanities.
Phyllis Backer Foundation Establishes Jewish Studies Professorship
Professorship will bring ‘vitality, innovation, cohesiveness’ to campus, Dean Ruhlandt says
A major gift from The Phyllis Backer Foundation will enhance the depth and breadth of modern Jewish studies at Syracuse University.
The Foundation has made a $1.5 million gift to establish The Phyllis Backer Professor of Jewish Studies in the College of Arts and Sciences (A&S). A national search will be launched for a teacher-scholar fluent in topics relating to Jews and Judaism, including history, religion, literature, philosophy, languages and politics.
“The Phyllis Backer Professorship brings vitality, innovation and cohesiveness to our scholarly community,” says Karin Ruhlandt, dean of A&S and a Distinguished Professor of Chemistry. “This professorship supports our signature focus on the study and teaching of the Jewish experience in modern times, as well as Jewish culture and ideas. Such work takes place against a broad, cross-disciplinary background.”
One of more than two-dozen interdisciplinary programs in A&S, Jewish Studies offers a bachelor’s degree in Modern Jewish Studies and a Jewish Studies minor. The program’s internationally renowned faculty, directed by Zachary Braiterman, professor of religion, hails from various units within A&S and across campus, including the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs and the College of Visual and Performing Arts.
Collaborative work has been the hallmark of Jewish Studies, since its inception in 1980. Today, the program is one of the nation’s finest, a purveyor of modern Judaic thought and culture.
Leonard S. Elman ’52, who chairs the Foundation, has been a longtime supporter of Syracuse University and its programs. The Foundation was established by the late Phyllis Backer, a lifelong resident of Queens, New York. Upon her death in March 2016, at age 90, Ms. Backer left her estate to the Foundation, whose charitable mission is to support organizations involved in medical research and education, with an emphasis on Jewish-related causes.
“The establishment of the Phyllis Backer Professorship will perpetuate the memory of the late Phyllis Backer, who established the Phyllis Backer Foundation to support Jewish philanthropy and education,” says Elman. “By making this gift, the Foundation’s board has implemented the Foundation’s purposes by furthering and encouraging Jewish studies at Syracuse University.”
“At the same time, it is supporting the social sciences and humanities in the College of Arts and Sciences, a longtime interest of mine,” Elman says.
Ruhlandt, for one, appreciates the long-range impact of the Foundation’s generosity—not only in A&S, but also across campus.
“This gift ensures Syracuse’s place at the forefront of Jewish teaching, research and scholarship,” she adds. “The Phyllis Backer Professorship provides a platform for new approaches to modern Jewish history. It also helps us answer universal questions about identity, namely ethnicity, language, religion and gender. Such transformational philanthropy elevates our reputation and broadens our aspirations.”