Jewish Studies Program Celebrates First Five Years Under Ochs

November 03, 2006

Nov. 3, 3006 -- If Thomas Jefferson were here today, he would say “nisht shlekht,” Yiddish for “not bad,” to describe how the Jewish Studies Program has evolved in the five years since it was created, opined Gabriel Finder, the new director of the program, at an Oct. 23 celebration of the program’s first five years under founding director Vanessa Ochs.

In that time, the program has grown from having just a single Jewish studies major to graduating eight last May and consistently having 500 students enrolled in 25 classes. Students today can take courses in Biblical and modern Hebrew, Yiddish, the Bible, rabbinic literature, Jewish ancient and modern history, Jewish literature and culture, Holocaust studies, Jewish theology and Jewish communities and cultures worldwide.

Not bad for a program that’s not yet old enough for its bar/bat mitzvah, quipped Finder, a highly regarded scholar of Polish Jewry and a lecturer in the history department, who replaced Ochs, an associate professor of religious studies, as the Ida and Nathan Kolodiz Director of Jewish Studies at the beginning of this semester.

The program is one of a handful of trailblazing programs that are expanding the concept of Jewish studies, which traditionally has been focused on Jewish language and literature, from the Torah and Talmud to Jewish history and rabbinic philosophy. Jewish studies at U.Va. encompasses cultural studies, including the study of artistic contributions and interactions with societies and the study of the experiences of women and the non-elite, explained Ochs. U.Va. joins New York University and the University of California, Berkeley, in leading this movement toward a more expansive view of Jewish studies.

During the afternoon celebration, Mel Leffler, former dean of the College and Graduate School of Arts & Sciences when the Jewish Studies Program was launched, recounted his discussion with Vanessa and her husband Peter Ochs about the idea of creating the new program. When they asked Leffler what he wanted and what he could provide, he responded, “Money is no problem, we’ll raise it. Please, use your imagination to create as wonderful a program as you could imagine and we will try to do what we can to support it.” He continued, “The wonderful thing about Vanessa is that she tried to carry out that mandate.”

Funding for the program did come, thanks to benefactors like Edgar M. Bronfman, president of the World Jewish Conference since 1981, recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom and former chairman and chief executive officer of the Seagram Company Ltd., at one time the largest distiller of alcoholic beverages in the world. Bronfman, who owns a house in the Charlottesville area, recounted during the celebration dinner how he responded when he was first asked to make a contribution to U.Va: “Whenever they want a Jewish studies department, tell them to give me a call,” which he assumed was like “waiting until hell freezes over.” But eventually they called, and he gave.

Thanks to the leadership and vision of Vanessa Ochs and the support of benefactors like Bronfman, Carol Silverman-Johnson and Thatcher Stone (all of whom were recognized and spoke at the celebration), the Jewish Studies Program at U.Va. allows students to focus on the history, languages and literature of the Jewish people; the beliefs and practices of Judaism; and the enduring contributions of Jewish wisdom to human civilization. These contributions include Biblical monotheism; ethics; Rabbinic traditions of textual study and interpretation; Jewish literary responses to marginality, oppression and suffering in modern times; and monuments of the 20th-century Jewish experience, including the revival of Hebrew as a living language, the establishment of Israel as an independent political state and the thriving of diverse forms of Jewish community throughout the world.