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Popular Brandeis professor elected President of the Association for Jewish Studies

By Rachel Dobkin

Section: News

January 24, 2014

Brandeis is lucky enough to have many world-class faculty members who are esteemed researchers, authors and scientists and have greatly impacted American academia as well as different facets of cultural history that constitute this university’s hallmark of diversity. Recently, one faculty member was elected the sixth president of the Association for Jewish Studies at its annual meeting. Jonathan D. Sarna, a Brandeis alumnus and a professor of American Jewish history, is the fourth Brandeis alumnus to receive this distinguished position. This role is especially dear to Sarna’s heart, because his late father Nahum Sarna, also a Brandeis professor, was a founder and president of the AJS.

Sarna is the Joseph H. and Belle R. Braun Professor of American Jewish history in the Near Eastern and Judaic Studies Department, “chief historian of the National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia and … a JTA board member,” according to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. He is also thought to be one of the most distinguished historians of American Jewish history. Sarna developed his interest in American Jewish history in high school and fostered it at Brandeis as an undergraduate student, where he could access the American Jewish Historical Society on campus. Sarna also studied at Boston Hebrew College, Merkaz HaRav Kook in Jerusalem and Yale, where he acquired his doctorate.

Although Sarna’s area of interest differs from his father’s, he says that he tries to “live up to the high standards that he set in his own scholarly career.” Brandeis has served as a template for other institutions’ Jewish Studies. Sarna, who spends a great deal of time in the NEJS department, is very enthusiastic and satisfied with the program, although in the near future he foresees many retirements and subsequent positions that will need to be filled.

“It is fabulous that at Brandeis, students study with faculty who teach their specialty and who often have written the definitive books in their field. Of course, our department is aging and we have experienced and will continue to experience a spate of retirements in the coming years. It is imperative that vacancies be filled and that we strive to recruit the best young scholars in the world. Ours should be nothing less than the finest Jewish studies program in the United States,” he said.

Some of Sarna’s goals for his presidency include improving the financial position of the AJS, conducting a “state of the field” survey and helping Jewish scholars publish and market their books. He feels honored to hold this position and walk in the footsteps of his father.

Sarna will truly be an asset to the AJS because he brings with him leadership skills and vast knowledge that will only improve the organization and lead to success. He believes that the field of American Jewish history is “new, and much scholarship remains to be accomplished. It is, to my mind, impossible to understand the present and future of the American Jewish community without a full understanding of its development and past.” He will combine history, passion and confidence in what Jewish studies can be to truly set him apart from past presidents.

The AJS is “a learned society and professional organization that seeks to promote, maintain and advance research in Jewish Studies at colleges, universities and other institutions of higher learning” in addition to fostering a “greater understanding of Jewish Studies scholarship among the wider public.” Since its inception in 1969 at Brandeis when Jewish studies was just taking off as a new field of study, AJS has grown to more than 1,800 members that include faculty, students, independent scholars and professionals. The AJS’s original goal was to create a “forum for exploring methodological and pedagogical issues in the new field of Jewish Studies,” and has grown to be a giant in the world of Jewish academia, being the largest professional organization representing Jewish Studies scholars on a global scale. The Association for Jewish Studies is currently directed by Brandeis alumna Dr. Rona Sheramy.

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