After a year of Covid -19, a pandemic hopefully receding for good, three professors at Bernard Revel Graduate School shared some varied reflections related to pandemics. Over fifty participants joined in the virtual event on May 5, Magefah: Pandemics Throughout Jewish History.

Dr. Richard Hidary presented “Talmudic Teachings on Loss and Survival during a Pandemic.” He collated sources from the Talmud which recommend introspection, repentance, and prayer in the face of a plague. Interestingly, he also showcased a Talmudic source, Bava Kamma 60b, which recommends notions of quarantine (“Come in your rooms and close your doors…(Isaiah 26:6)) and social distancing “Do not walk in the middle of the road..”

Dr. Ronnie Perelis spoke about “Dancing with Death: Life and Death and the Plague in Sepharad.” He analyzed the words of the Danse Macabre, a popular song in Spain after the Black Death which personified Death and described ‘his’ dancing with all different characters in Spanish society. Dr. Perelis argued that the specific descriptions of Jews and Muslims in the song evince the real social familiarity the different religious groups shared in medieval Spain.

Dr. Jess Olson commented on “1919 to 2020: Jews and Two Centuries of Pandemics.” He compared the influenza epidemic of 1919 to the Covid-19 pandemic of today. He mentioned that though our medical knowledge has advanced considerably in the century, the Unites States has suffered disproportionately in the Covid 19 pandemic. On a positive note, Dr. Olson suggested that the global position of Jews is more secure now than it was a century ago.

 

Dr. Joshua Karlip

Dr. Joshua Karlip is associate professor of Jewish history and Herbert S. and Naomi Denenberg Chair of Jewish Studies at Yeshiva University. He has taught in the Bernard Revel Graduate School of Jewish StudiesYeshiva College and Stern College for Women.

On May 17, 2021, he received a letter from the SEFER Center for University Teaching of Jewish Civilization in Moscow, Russia, announcing that he had been awarded a grant to support his newest book project, tentatively titled Rabbis in the Land of Atheism: The Struggle to Save Judaism in the Soviet Union. (YU News has posted a story about Dr. Karlip also receiving support from Yeshiva University for this project.)

“I learned about the SEFER Center and the grant through an announcement on a listserv I’m a member of,” he noted. “The grant will cover all expenses related to research, such as airfare, hotels, costs for use of archives, and so on.”

He plans to use the grant money to travel to Israel this summer to conduct research at the National Library of Israel and the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People, both of which are located in Jerusalem.  “They possess rich archival material on the lives and writings of rabbis in the Soviet Union during the interwar period.  I also plan to use the money to travel to Moscow in the summer of 2022 for the SEFER conference and also to travel to archives throughout the former Soviet Union that house material about Jewish religious life in the Soviet Union.”

Dr. Karlip explained that the heart of the book is the untold story of how Soviet rabbis attempted to keep Judaism alive and relevant to their followers when living in a militantly atheistic state.  “By analyzing responsa, sermons, Hasidic addresses, and correspondence, I will demonstrate how rabbis constructed a political theology to make sense of the success of the Soviet government even as they sought to make room for religious belief and observance in the lives of Soviet Jews.

 

On April 6th, students and community members were treated to a special virtual tour in the latest installment of the Crisis and Hope series. Dr. Ronnie Perelis welcomed Monica Unikel-Fasja, the author of “Synagogues of Mexico.”  Using many detailed photographs, Monica explored the history of the Jewish settlement in Mexico, from the first crypto- Jews to the modern day community. She specifically spoke about and showed beautiful images of the Sinagoga Justo Sierra, the first Ashkenazic synagogue in Mexico, built in 1941, where Monica now serves as director. The full video from the event can be viewed here: https://www.yu.edu/crisisandhope/past-recordings

 

Who was Shabbetai Tzvi? Why was his messianic movement incredibly successful, even surviving the apostasy and death of the purported messiah? What lasting impact did this false messiah have on Jewish History?

On Tuesday Feb. 16, over 400 people joined a Zoom lecture organized jointly by the Bernard Revel Graduate School and the Young Israel of Great Neck to hear Dr. David Berger, former Dean and current professor at Revel, speak about one of the areas of his scholarly expertise.

Dr. Berger, drawing upon the work of Gershon Scholem and other academic treatments of the subject, first sketched a biography of Shabbetai Tzvi. Born in Smyrna in 1626, Shabbetai began acting strangely at the age of 22, pronouncing the name of God, telling the sun to stop in its tracks, later marrying a Torah scroll, and engaging in other bizarre, or even forbidden acts. Dr. Berger explained how this possibly manic-depressive individual’s eccentricities developed into a full-blown messianic movement with the involvement of Nathan of Gaza, who became the prophet and theologian for Sabbateanism, which at one point captured the allegiance – to a greater or lesser degree- of most of world Jewry.

Scholars argue as to the cause for Sabbateanism’s unprecedented success. Some point to the Chmielnicki Uprising in Poland, which occurred in 1648, the same year Shabbetai Tzvi began to garner attention. They suggest that the despair of Ashkenazic Jewry in the aftermath of the bloody uprising was fertile ground for a messianic movement. Gershon Scholem rejected this explanation on the grounds that the movement’s origin and greatest intensity were in the Sephadic orbit and instead emphasized the influence of widespread Lurianic mysticism in the movement’s success. Moshe Idel and others rejected this on the ground that Lurianic mysticism was not that widespread. A third, plausible factor is the extensive diaspora of Marranos, former Marranos, and relatives of Marranos. Crypto-Jews had been forced to declare their belief in a false messiah and now had the opportunity to welcome the true redeemer. An additional consideration is the rapid international communication that was available by the seventeenth century, a factor noted by Jacob Katz. Finally, the rational approach of Maimonides, who says THAT the exact messianic process is unclear, made it difficult to disprove that Shabbetai Tzvi might turn out to be the messiah.

Sabbateanism had a lasting impact on world Jewry. It led to communal weakness and a diminution of respect for rabbinic authority. It yielded a small but significant number of conversions to Christianity and perhaps contributed both to the rise of and opposition to Hasidism. The decline of traditional Jewish messianism and new movements of Emancipation, Enlightenment, Reform Judaism and Zionism have all been associated with Sabbateanism as well.

As always, Dr. Berger’s lecture was engaging, enjoyable, and erudite. The audio link is available here.

 

On Wednesday, Feb. 17, 2021, the Azrieli Graduate School of Jewish Education and Administration, along with the Bernard Revel Graduate School of Jewish Studies and the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary (RIETS) and supported by the Shevet Glaubach Center for Career Strategy and Professional Development, hosted the Jewish Education Night of Networking.

The event began with a welcome from Dr. Rona Novick, dean of Azrieli Graduate School, in which she addressed both the stresses for Jewish educators brought on by the pandemic as well as the strategies and innovations being developed to support them and their schools. Underscoring the role of spirituality, finding fun, being flexible and actions to make a difference, Dr. Novick reminded educators that in order to care for their students, they need resources. “Just as the stewardess reminds you, in case of a sudden loss of cabin pressure,” she noted, “affix your oxygen mask before helping others: you need to find ways to take care of yourselves.”

Attendees then had the opportunity to visit online presentations by the faculty of Azrieli, Revel and RIETS as well as by representatives of Jewish schools and educational organizations. These included included brief lectures on relevant topics and introductions to the work and culture of various Jewish day schools.

The discussions touched upon such topics as teaching the Holocaust, incorporating the teachings of Pirkei Avot [Ethics of the Fathers] to support social-emotional learning, the importance of Jewish philosophy, managing loss, how to give a model lesson and making Gemara [Talmud] relevant for students.

Presenters included Dr. Karen Shawn (associate professor of Jewish education at Azrieli), Dr. Shay Pilnik (director, Emil A. and Jenny Fish Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies), Dr. Daniel Rynhold (dean, Revel Graduate School) Dr. Scott Goldberg (associate professor of education and psychology at Azrieli), and Rabbi David Block and Rabbi Ari Segal of Shalhevet High School in Los Angeles, California.

 

Zoom screens from the Night of Networking
Scenes from YULA and Yeshiva Har Torah (Little Neck, NY)

 

Over 35 schools and other chinuch-related [education] organizations shared the innovations taking place at their schools to engage educators for potential positions. They came from all around the country, including the Midwest (Farber Hebrew Day School of Southfield, Michigan),  the Southeast (Margolin Hebrew Academy-Feinstone Yeshiva of the South in Memphis, Tennessee), the West coast (Yeshiva University High Schools of Los Angeles and Southern California Yeshiva High School) and the New York metropolitan area (SAR High School in Riverdale and Yeshivat Noam in Paramus, New Jersey).

Those who attended appreciated meeting with representatives from multiple schools and learning about the opportunities available in Jewish education. One Azrieli student who had never considered a job outside the New York metropolitan area said she so enjoyed her “visit” with representatives from the Addlestone Hebrew Academy of Charleston, South Carolina, that she envisioned taking a job there.

The success of the Night of Networking can be measured in the 150 people attending nearly 70 different presentations throughout the evening. In the coming weeks, the Shevet Glaubach Center will be sending the résumés of attendees to presenters so that people can build upon the connections made during the Night of Networking that will ultimately strengthen the field of Jewish education.