Dr. Ronnie Perelis on Becoming the Director of the Schneier Program
In June 2018, Dr. Ronnie Perelis took over the directorship of the Rabbi Arthur Schneier Program for International Affairs from Dr. Ruth Bevan, who, as David W. Petegorsky Chair in Political Science, professor of political science and co-chair of the department of political science, had led the Center for 14 years.
In addition to being director of the Schneier Program, Dr. Perelis is also Chief Rabbi Dr. Isaac Abraham and Jelena (Rachel) Alcalay Chair in Sephardic Studies and associate professor of Sephardic studies.
Dr. Perelis sat down with YU News to talk about his new duties as director and his vision for the role of Program at Yeshiva University.
Dr. Perelis, you’re known for your work on Jewish culture and society spanning centuries before our time. How does that connect to the mission of the Schneier Program?
The people I study were participants in the creation of the first global age, part of the new world order that developed after the European encounter with the Americas, the colonization of the new world and the expansion of trade routes both across the Atlantic and the Pacific. Early modern Sephardim were active in global networks that transcended national boundaries and, in doing so, not only drove innovative new ways to make money but also new ways to create communities.
My scholarship and teaching engage the same questions we are still trying to better understand today: How can diverse societies thrive? What are the limits of tolerance? What is the relationship between people’s ethnic or national identities and their relationship to the other? What is the role of language in the diffusion and dynamics of culture and society? How can religion serve as a bridge instead of a divider?
How does the Schneier Program help further the mission of the University?
Yeshiva University is at once an intimate community of students, scholars and educators dedicated to the synthesis of Torah UMadda, but at the same time, we live in the most diverse and exciting of global cities. Because we are deeply rooted but radically open to the world, the Schneier Program is an important portal through which our students and scholars and the wider University community can think globally and find ways of engaging with the world around us.
What are some of the projects for the Schneier Program that you’d like people to know about?
The Center will continue to bring world-class thinkers to YU to engage publicly with our students about issues of global importance. In addition, we can help sponsor more localized projects, such as a guided trip to the United Nations that my colleague Maria Zaitseva, adjunct assistant professor in political science at Yeshiva College, will be organizing for students at Stern College for Women and YC. We are developing a relationship between our bilingual students, many of whom are Spanish speakers from across Latin America, and the Wurzweiler School of Social Work to serve as translators for Wurzweiler’s fantastic Care Cafe programs.
To help empower individual students to deepen their understanding of the world, we will be providing research grants through the Rabbi Arthur Schneier Global Scholars Travel grant. I am very excited by this initiative, and I look forward to seeing what our students bring back from their journey. We will have an event where they share their research in the fall.
The website states that the “Rabbi Arthur Schneier Program for International Affairs of Yeshiva University sets the standard for open dialogue, peacefully conducted.” What pressing issue today do you think needs “open dialogue, peacefully conducted”?
Just about everything! We are assaulted by tweets and sound bites and “gotcha” quotes, and a university needs to be a refuge from that form of shallow and aggressive discourse and a place for going deep into an issue by listening to and exchanging ideas with thoughtful thinkers and doers of all stripes who have been trying to make sense of our society and world.
I believe that when one decides to discuss actual policy as opposed to “politics,” people can come together and come away with a better understanding of what they believe and what their ideological opponents believe and why they believe it.
That we live in an interconnected world is a worn cliché, but it’s so worn because it’s so true. And yet every day, the nature of that interconnection becomes more confusing and complex. I hope that the speakers who will visit us and the variety of service and research programs that the Schneier Program will facilitate will give us all a clearer and richer understanding of how to navigate this exciting world.
On April 3, 2019, the Schneier Program is hosting a lecture by Dr. James Loeffler from the University of Virginia titled “Double Anniversary, Double Amnesia: Zionism and Human Rights in 1948 and Today.” Give a sense of why people need to come to this event.
When I was appointed director of the Program, I knew that I wanted Dr. Loeffler to be our first speaker, not only because he is a riveting story teller with a maverick thesis about the history of Zionism and international human rights but also because I believe his book reflects the mission of the University and the Schneier Program. Dr. Loeffler’s new book, Rooted Cosmopolitans, explores the tensions between being at once dedicated to one’s identity—in this case, Zionism—and at the same time a vigorous champion for the rights of all people. This is a tension which is at the core of what it means to be a Modern Orthodox Jew, balancing a deep love and connection to Israel and the Jewish people worldwide while maintaining an active engagement with one’s wider community on the local and international level. As I said at the beginning, we are rooted in our traditions, our history and our Torah, but those very same things call us to engage with our neighbors and build bridges across cultures and national boundaries.