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Schusterman Center works toward Israel literacy

By Polina Potochevska

Section: Features

April 13, 2018

Nestled in a glass hallway on the third floor of the Mandel Center for the Humanities is the Schusterman Center for Israel Studies. Originally founded in 2007 under the vision of former Professor Ilan Troen ’63, the center is dedicated to advancing knowledge about Israeli history, politics, culture and society.

“The idea was to normalize the study of Israel” and to serve as a nexus between Jewish studies and Middle East studies at Brandeis, said Dr. Rachel Fish Ph.D. ’13, the associate director of the center. The center also serves as “a catalyst for Israel studies in North America and throughout the world,” said Rabbi David Ellenson, director of the Schusterman Center.

Fish explained that the primary function of the center is to train Ph.D. candidates in the field of Israel studies so that they can gain professions in higher education. According to the center’s brochure, “The center’s global reputation for teaching and research is reflected in its doctoral candidates, called Schusterman Scholars, who come to Brandeis from countries around the world… [they] enrich the campus with the remarkable diversity of their backgrounds.”

The Schusterman Center hosts an array of programs and involvements, including a publication arm that co-publishes the multi-disciplinary journal “Israel Studies” with the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.

“That was an important piece for [Troen] because it is a way to influence the field of Israel studies and also to help scholarship about Israel into the classroom,” Fish said. “It helps to create what we would call ‘Israel literacy.’”

Another program that promotes Israel literacy is the Israel Education Project (IEP), which aims to improve understanding of Israeli history, politics, culture and society among professionals and educators “so that they can appreciate the country in all its complexity,” according to the center’s brochure. “We do not engage in advocacy, but we do engage in Israel education at a high academic level for professors throughout North American but also for many other audiences,” Ellenson said.

The center also hosts the Summer Institute for Israel Studies, a two-week faculty training program at Brandeis. The Summer Institute, which began in 2004 before the center was founded, hosts about 20 faculty members from around the world to attend seminars about Israel studies, followed by a 10-day tour of Israel, in order to develop syllabi for courses that they will teach when they return to their respective campuses. Faculty also remain involved with the center by attending webinars and conferences.

The center hosts a graduate seminar every other week to introduce students and other members of the Brandeis community to “a broad array of scholars dealing with every field of Israel studies,” Ellenson said. “We see it as a very important part of the educational formation of our doctoral students.”

While the center is non-degree granting, it is interested in “cultivating scholarship and academic inquiry, and teaching the complexity about Israel within higher education, and hope to influence a nuanced conversation… with a multiplicity of perspectives,” Fish said.

The Schusterman Center celebrated its 10-year anniversary in March with lectures by former United States Ambassador to Israel Daniel B. Shapiro and Professor Rivka Carmi, President of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev and the first woman to serve as president of an Israeli university. The two-day celebration also included presentations, workshops and other discussions. Since its founding, the center has published 24 books, received 3,000 subscriptions to it journal, “Israel Studies” and has hosted about 300 professors from around the world for the Summer Institute of Israel Studies program, according to the brochure distributed during the anniversary celebration.

Next year, Ellenson will be stepping down as director, and Professor Jonathan Sarna will be taking on the role. “It’s been a wonderful three years, and I’ve enjoyed the position very much,” said Ellenson. With the new director and a new professor joining Brandeis from the Ohio State University, Professor Alexander Kaye, the center will be “focused on the directions they wish to take,” but all of the programs in place will continue into the next year, and a number of courses of all levels will be taught.

Ellenson, who taught at Hebrew Union College before receiving his position as director of the Schusterman Center, said that Brandeis is a natural central locus for the study of Israel, given its rich history.

Fish, who received her doctoral degree from Brandeis, agreed it was an easy decision to attend. “It was one of the few universities at the time who really had the human capacity and resources in the field of Israel studies,” she said. “The ecosystem of Brandeis and the unparalleled history that Brandeis has in the field of Zionist thought, Israel, Jewish studies and Middle East studies, to have the combination in one place is very rare.” In Ellenson’s words, the Schusterman Center is a “unique treasure.”

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