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Historian Jonathan Sarna elected president of the Association for Jewish Studies

Brandeis University Professor Jonathan Sarna was elected President of the Association of Jewish Studies at their annual meeting, Dec. 2013
Brandeis University Professor Jonathan Sarna was elected President of the Association of Jewish Studies at their annual meeting, Dec. 2013
Mike Lovett

Brandeis University Joseph H. and Belle R. Braun Professor of American Jewish History Jonathan Sarna was elected President of the Association for Jewish Studies at their annual meeting this past December as was reported by Brandeis University on Monday, Jan. 6, 2014. Sarna is a second generation President of the organization that focuses on promoting Jewish studies in academic education and research in the field; his father Nahum Sarna also served in that position. Sarna is also the fourth president to be elected since the organization's founding in 1969 from Brandeis University, the same university that formed the organization.

Professor Sarna is also "chair of the Hornstein Program for Jewish Professional Leadership" at Brandeis in the department of Near Eastern and Judaic Studies and the "chief historian of the National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia." Sarna is a graduate of Brandeis earning his undergraduate and a master's degree from the university, and received Masters and PhD degrees in history from Yale University. Sarna is the award winning author of numerous books on American Jewish history, some which have been winners or finalists of the National Jewish Book Award, including being a finalist most recently for When General Grant Expelled the Jews focusing on anti-Semitism during the Civil War. He is also the author of the Jewish studies standard American Judaism: A History. Sarna's father Nahum served as president of the organization in 1984-85.

Sarna commenting on his election to Brandeis University news, expressed; "This is great honor to be a leading an organization that plays an important role in furthering Jewish Studies scholarship and education. On a personal level, it means a great deal to me to be following in my father's footsteps. As the first child of an Association for Jewish Studies president to be elected to the same position, I consider myself the 'John Quincy Adams' of the organization."

Brandeis University Provost Steve Goldstein is also pleased that Brandeis is again heading the leadership in Jewish Studies, stated; "We are proud of Brandeis' historic role in the creation and nurturing of the field of Jewish Studies in the United States and of our faculty who have served the profession in this role. Dr. Sarna's scholarly contributions and international stature are valued both by Brandeis and the Association."

From Dec. 15 to 17, 2013 the Association of Jewish Studies held their 45th annual meeting in Boston, Massachusetts with over 1200 academics, professors, graduate students, scholars and curators in the field of Jewish studies in attendance for 150 sessions on a wide range of Jewish studies topics from the traditional to the cultural and everything in between.

According to the Association's website "AJS's mission is to advance research and teaching in Jewish Studies at colleges, universities, and other institutions of higher learning, and to foster greater understanding of Jewish Studies scholarship among the wider public." And its "1800 members are university faculty, graduate students, independent scholars, and museum and related professionals who represent the breadth of Jewish Studies scholarship."

Professor Sarna is taking over the AJS's presidency at a time when there is a concern that the field of Jewish studies and on the larger the Humanities is not as popular for undergraduate majors as they used to be. This is mostly because of the economic downturn in the past couple of years, with most students interested in courses that lead to a profession. But as Rona Sheramy the executive director of the Association for Jewish Studies stated at the annual conference; "it is very problematic to judge the value of the humanities -- and Jewish Studies -- solely along these lines."

Still despite these constraints according to a recent Haaretz article on the state of Jewish Studies indicated that "over 170 universities" in Canada and the United States offer Jewish Studies courses. And there are now courses being offered in universities where it would not be the norm, and do not usually attract large population of Jewish students. Additionally, the variety of Jewish studies courses have broadened beyond the traditional core of religion or history and are now more interdisciplinary and interest students because as Elias Sacks an assistant professor of Religious Studies at University of Colorado, Boulder explained at the AJS meeting, students "want to get to debate religion and politics and part of why these courses sell is because they address broader issues."

Among students that are pursuing graduate and doctorate in Jewish Studies career goals are broadening beyond the academic and scholarly realms. They are not just looking for tenure-track university professorships, where there are less available positions for new graduates, but for careers in public history and museums and teaching in Jewish primary and secondary schools. As Professor Sarna takes the helm of the Association of Jewish Studies, the field is changing expanding it courses and targeted audience and hopefully will continue flourishing.


Bonnie K. Goodman is the Editor of the Academic Buzz Network, a series of political, academic & education blogs which includes History Musings: History, News & Politics. She has a BA in History & Art History & a Masters in Library and Information Studies, both from McGill University, and has done graduate work in Jewish history at Concordia University as part of the MA in Judaic Studies program. Her specializations are academic & universities news, particularly history & library news.

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