Autumn 2003 / Feature
Keeping the Faith

In a time of tight budgets, U of T’s Jewish Studies program succeeds by combining faith, scholarship and private funding


She had a love of study and learning, declares Milton Shier, tapping his fingers on the arm of his chair. Shier, 85 and recovering from hip replacement surgery, is seated in his ninth-floor office overlooking Toronto’s St. Clair Avenue. On the desk before him is a picture of his wife, Joyce, and on the shelf behind him is a photo of his first wife, Shoshana – a lifelong learner. Shier proudly recalls how Shoshana became a teacher, even though she had to quit high school during the Great Depression after her father died. In 1990, she received her bachelor of arts from the University of Toronto on the same day their daughter Joy-Anne received a master’s degree in Russian history. Five years later Shoshana Shier died at age 72, and her husband began contemplating an appropriate tribute to her memory.

Choosing to support U of T’s growing program in Jewish Studies, Milton Shier created the Shoshana Shier Distinguished Visiting Professor of Jewish Studies. It’s a generous gift that honours Shoshana’s love of learning in a new way every year. Income from that donation allows the Jewish Studies program to bring in a scholar of international renown each year to teach for one term and give three public lectures. Since 1999, visiting scholars from McGill University in Montreal, Boston-based Brandeis University and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem have taught courses, mentored students and swapped ideas with other U of T faculty during formal seminars and informal lunches. And their lectures – on subjects as diverse as Jewish folklore in Eastern Europe and the textual accuracy of the Hebrew Bible – have attracted audiences of 200 and more, including both academics and interested members of the public.

“When scholars of this calibre visit the University of Toronto, it creates excitement,” says Shier, former chairman of Ontario Store Fixtures, a leading manufacturer of retail shelving units. “Their knowledge is unparalleled. I’m very gratified. The program has lived up to our expectations.”

Shier’s support has involved more than money. He also provided vital support to an initiative within Toronto’s 175,000-member Jewish community to improve the university’s Jewish Studies program and raise its profile internationally. This community effort has led to the creation of four endowed chairs in Jewish Studies, with a fifth being negotiated, and an endowed lecturer’s position in Yiddish language and literature, each based on donations of $1 million to $2 million.

The result: in just a few years U of T’s Jewish Studies has evolved from a collection of diverse course offerings into an organized, scholarly program that is attracting increasing international attention. At a time when the university is coping with significant funding shortfalls, this growth is a tribute to the power of private giving. While not without its complications, the success of Jewish Studies reflects the growing role that individuals are playing in developing new programs and academic resources at U of T that meet both community needs and the highest standards of international scholarship.

“The fact that so much has been achieved in such a short period of time is incredible,” says Jewish Studies director Derek Penslar, who was recruited from Indiana University five years ago to become the first Samuel J. Zacks Professor of Jewish History. “It’s safe to say that if it hadn’t been for these donations, Jewish Studies at the University of Toronto wouldn’t be a shadow of what it is now. We wouldn’t have the eminent scholars, we wouldn’t be attracting outstanding graduate students, and I don’t think we would be offering the same challenges to our undergraduates.”

Equally important, the creation of the endowed chairs ensures that Jewish thought, spirituality and literature an intellectual heritage that forms one of the cornerstones of Western society and culture – will be taught at U of T by leading scholars for the next century and beyond. The chairs shield the program from economic or political changes that might lead to less funding or reduced commitment on the university’s part. “Having the chairs means the university is committed in perpetuity to those fields of study,” says Michael Marrus, dean of the School of Graduate Studies and the Chancellor Rose and Ray Wolfe Professor of Holocaust Studies. “When I leave, someone will take my place.” Normally, he says, “in an academic environment, you can never be sure of that.”

Jewish Studies is a subject of interest to more than the local Jewish community that has nurtured the program at U of T – indeed, supporters are often surprised to learn that many of the students enrolled in Jewish Studies are not Jewish. Although never great in numbers, the Jewish people have made an inordinate contribution to world civilization – equal to that of Greece and Rome, in Penslar’s estimation. Among their greatest contributions is the Hebrew Bible (known to Christians as the Old Testament), the building block of two of the world’s largest faiths. “You can’t understand Christianity and Islam without understanding Judaism,” says Penslar. And of course, some of the key themes that arise in studying Jewish thought and culture – diversity and tolerance – are also driving forces in today’s social and geopolitical arenas.

According to Penslar, universities only began viewing Jewish Studies as an academic discipline in the 1930s, with the real growth coming 40 years later. U of T’s program started in 1967 with the appointment of Frank Talmage, a distinguished scholar of medieval Judaism, as the first professor of Jewish Studies. From the beginning the program has been multidisciplinary: rather than a separate department with its own curriculum and staff, it offers courses through nine different departments, including English, history, political science and philosophy. Today about 1,000 undergrads a year take some 60 Jewish Studies courses, with about 25 of them majoring in the subject. They focus on one of three areas: Jewish religion and thought; history and society; or language and literature.

Jewish Studies is not the only academic program growing through private support. Individual donors are also helping to expand U of T’s offerings in Ukrainian and Hungarian studies, among others. But the local Jewish community’s strength and vision have helped U of T’s program rank among the leading Jewish Studies programs in North America. The creation of fully endowed chairs “allowed us to expand the range of course offerings,” notes former dean of arts and science Carl Amrhein, a major supporter who left U of T last May to become provost of the University of Alberta. “It has allowed us to recruit and retain very, very high-calibre international faculty. And it has allowed us to create a professoriate that is deeply engaged in research and graduate supervision.”

This transformation was the work of about eight prominent members of Toronto’s Jewish community, led by Rose Wolfe, who served as U of T’s chancellor from 1991 to 1997. Her husband, Ray, CEO of Ontario food wholesaler Oshawa Group, had already helped establish a post-doctoral fellowship in Jewish Studies before his death in 1990 at age 71. Also in 1990, Toronto philanthropists Max and Gianna Glassman created a program in which a University of Toronto professor could teach and study in Israel one year and an Israeli academic could come to Toronto the following year.

But Rose Wolfe set her eyes on something much bigger. “My husband had put the seed in my head for a chair in Jewish Studies,” she recalls. “When I became chancellor I thought, now is the time.” Early in her term, Wolfe and her supporters began canvassing the Jewish community. They quickly landed their lead donors, Richard Shiff, the former president of real estate giant Bramalea Ltd., and his wife, Dorothy. Within six months, they had raised another $1 million through smaller gifts, enabling the creation of the Richard and Dorothy Shiff Chair in Jewish Studies. The chair was filled in 1997 by David Novak, a world-renowned scholar on interfaith relationships who strives to break down the barriers between Judaism and Christianity. “When I think back, it seems like a miracle,” says Wolfe. “Everybody became wildly enthusiastic. We decided there were other areas of Jewish Studies that needed to be developed.”

The year 1997 saw the founding of the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Chair in Israeli Studies, although it remained vacant until the arrival in 2001 of Emanuel Adler, a world expert on conflict resolution. In 1998, the Samuel J. Zacks Chair of Jewish History was established; it was filled by Penslar, an authority on Israel and modern European Jewry. Then Wolfe herself got into the act. As a young social worker in 1947, she had helped find Canadian homes for Jewish orphans from Nazi concentration camps. In 2000 her gift led to the creation of the Chancellor Rose and Ray Wolfe Chair in Holocaust Studies, currently filled by Michael Marrus, who has studied fascism, war, bigotry and the Holocaust for more than two decades. Such renowned scholars do more than provide world-class teaching and research; their reputations also attract master’s and doctoral students from Canada and abroad. Last year one more position was announced, the Endowed Lecturer in Yiddish Language and Literature (see story below).

To ensure that donors and community members stay close to the program, and to let them know how their money is being put to work, an executive advisory committee was established to facilitate the flow of information. “We meet periodically to talk about where the program is going and problems we’re having,” says Penslar. “People can make suggestions about how we might make better use of our resources, but they don’t have a right to run the program.”

There is another important sign of the close relationship between Jewish Studies and Toronto’s Jewish community: the children of some of the original donors have become involved in the program. Second-generation representatives of four donor families participate in the executive advisory committee. And Milton Shier’s son, Joseph (BA 1972, LLB 1975), sits on the committee that advises on the annual Shoshana Shier Distinguished Visiting Professor. A 51-year-old investment adviser and graduate of U of T’s law school, Joseph also makes a point of personally welcoming incoming professors, sometimes hosting an introductory dinner. He attends their public lectures and has even audited their graduate seminars. “It gives me an opportunity to meet the students,” he says. “There’s a discernible level of excitement among them at having a great scholar in Jewish Studies at U of T.”

It would be wrong, however, to suggest that everything goes smoothly in all of these relationships. Donors’ expectations sometimes clash with the realities of academic life. One family is reportedly unhappy, for instance, with the time it has taken to fill the chair they created. And donors who fund Jewish Studies to support their community may feel disappointed when scholarly researchers question prevailing assumptions.

“There’s always potential for tension,” notes Penslar. “Sometimes there is a desire on the part of donors to give a chair in the belief that this will strengthen the Jewish community or enhance Jewish identity on the campus.” There’s nothing wrong with those goals; last February, Jewish Studies co-sponsored a free public conference on anti-Semitism in which international scholars made presentations aimed at local laypeople. But for the most part Jewish Studies, like most academic programs, aims to inform and influence a diverse worldwide audience.

Penslar’s solution to potential conflicts is to communicate, as fully and as often as he can. “I talk quite frankly about these tensions with our donors,” he adds. “Sometimes they agree, sometimes they don’t, but they understand where we are coming from.”

For all the community’s generosity, however, the Jewish Studies program has far to go. Because of funding shortfalls, it depends on visiting lecturers rather than permanent professors to teach such core subjects as the Hebrew Bible, Hebrew literature and the modern Hebrew language. Another need is for a full-time curator to manage the university’s 150,000-volume Judaica collection, which is considered one of the best in North America. And Penslar dreams of having more funding for student aid and research, to help the university compete for the very best graduate students from around the world. “The real key is going to be the next generation of leadership,” he says. “Very often people in their 40s and 50s are at the peak of their earning power, but they probably have different priorities now. I’m hoping that in the next few years they will be in a position to make donations and recognize that an eventual gift to U of T is an investment in the Jewish community.”

Of course, it’s also an investment in young people, says Wolfe. In the end, she notes, “The students are the beneficiaries. They’re the ones you do all this for.”


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