A Message From the Director

in News and Events
July 11th, 2013

We have a saying in German that says, neue Besen kehren gut. Roughly translated, it means that it is easy to sweep when using a new broom, though I am not exactly a “new broom.” As some of you know, I’ve been on the faculty of the Department of Religion at Boston University since 1994, when I started as “staff” in Judaic studies when my courses were first advertised. In those days, CAS was still CLA and our digs were on the 5th and 6th floor of the School of Theology building, right next to the University Professor’s program, where one sometimes caught a glimpse of some of the illustrious and talented people John Silber had assembled over the years. (I said hello to Saul Bellow once, which pleased me no end; Henderson the Rain King was one of the first books I read in English, back in 1979, when I traveled in Israel for the first time and began the odyssey that led me here where, this summer, I am assuming the responsibilities of director of the Elie Wiesel Center for Judaic Studies.)

An odyssey for me: from Heidelberg to Brandeis via the Hebrew University of Jerusalem; from theology to philosophy and a doctorate in Near Eastern and Judaic Studies; from studying for the Protestant ministry to serving as a professor of Jewish thought and religion. An odyssey for Jewish or Judaic studies as well?

What are Jewish or Judaic studies and how (in what contexts and interconnections) are we pursuing them here at BU? How do we fit in the landscape of Jewish studies in the greater Boston area, the Association for Jewish Studies, and the international community of scholars? What role can we play?

I have found BU an environment where neither faculty nor students are easily pigeon-holed. One of the largest research universities in the United States with a diverse, international student body, BU has been a hospitable place for someone like myself who is not easily classified. I strive to return the favor by creating a welcoming and open environment that fosters inquiry, not advocacy. Bridging gaps, encouraging different voices, reaching out and bringing people together are in my intellectual DNA.

BU has been hospitable for Jewish studies more generally. Over the past twenty years, BU has added faculty, helped with fundraising, dedicated one of its major buildings, helped expand the library, and supported our work in many other ways in the expectation of creating one of the finest Jewish studies programs in the country. The ball is in our court.

My goals for the next three years are ambitious but simple:

•   Make 147 BSR a hub of advanced Jewish studies;

•   Boost Israel studies;

•   Make Jewish studies relevant to the wider community on and off campus.

A center of advanced studies

I will devote much time and energy on thematic, research driven work that draws on faculty expertise and supports faculty by hosting visiting scholars, doctoral and post-doctoral fellows, conferences, exhibitions, conferences, and publications.

A center of Israel studies

We will seek to secure a full-time position in Israel studies that connects our Center with other fields and disciplines, including history, anthropology, international relations, Hebrew language and Middle East studies.

A center of Jewish studies

In conjunction with other units and universities, we will create a vibrant center of intellectual and academic exchange and a source of inspiration for anyone interested in the rich tapestry of Jewish religion and culture, history and literature, society and politics, from ancient to modern times.

A broom, new or old, is merely a tool; it really depends on who does the sweeping. Our building, gifts and endowments are a testimony to the friendship between John Silber and Elie Wiesel and to the generosity of their friends who, along with other supporters, have built a wonderful legacy. Faculty and graduate students will be the ones generating the ideas and the intellectual energy that will drive our programs. My task will be to put our assets in motion toward the bright future of Jewish studies at BU. This is not to be accomplished single-handedly or overnight. I expect to make mistakes and to be corrected. I can’t do it alone. But I can’t wait to get to work.

In fact, I’ve already started. In the fall we will have Ethan Bronner, the former NYT Jerusalem bureau chief, as the next Yitzhak Rabin Lecturer on campus; in conjunction with Alumni Weekend, we will host a small symposium on Jewish literature and the Humanities; a first longer-term theme, spear-headed by Prof. Zatlin (History) and involving an exhibition and conference on the dispossession of the Jews of Germany in the 1930s, is in planning for 2014-15. And that’s just for starters.

Make sure to check in with us regularly and keep our events on your calendar. Take classes with us and support us if you like what you see.

I’ll see you at “147,” the Elie Wiesel Center for Judaic Studies!


Michael Zank

Director, EWCJS


Boston, July 12, 2013