Yehuda Kurtzer awarded Bronfman Visiting Chair in Jewish Communal Innovation

WALTHAM, Mass. – Yehuda Kurtzer, who is widely recognized as a rising star among Jewish scholars, has been named the first winner of Brandeis University's Charles R. Bronfman Visiting Chair in Jewish Communal Innovation.

Kurtzer, who has previously held the Wexner Graduate Fellowship and the Andrew W. Mellon Fellowship in Humanistic Studies, is currently completing his Ph.D. at Harvard University. He received the unanimous support of the selection committee of Brandeis faculty for a project entitled "The Sacred Task of Rebuilding Jewish Memory."

The project will produce "a powerful programmatic and public policy statement on what authentic Jewish memory means, from where it derives, and how the Jewish community can reinforce its values both in theory and in practice," Kurtzer wrote in his proposal.

More than 200 people from around the world entered the competition for the chair, which carries with it two years of salary, benefits and research assistance.

The winner will be expected to teach one course each semester at Brandeis, and to deliver lectures or seminars based on the project, but the bulk of the chair-holder’s time will be set aside for research and writing. The book that results from this effort will be published and promoted by Brandeis University Press.

The choice of Kurtzer was announced by Jonathan D. Sarna, the Joseph H. & Belle R. Braun Professor of American Jewish History, who chaired the faculty selection committee and directs the Hornstein Jewish Professional Leadership Program, which will administer the chair.

Kurtzer "seeks to understand how and why we remember what we do, and how Jewish memory can be strengthened and renewed," Sarna said in a letter informing the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies – which is funding the new chair – of the selection.

"Mr. Kurtzer's project is particularly timely as we enter an era when the last Holocaust survivors are passing from the scene," Sarna said. "With the preservation of Holocaust memory a renewed topic of concern in Jewish life, Mr. Kurtzer's research promises to shed important fresh light on this subject."

Sarna said Kurtzer has put forward important ideas in this area in work he has done with the U.S. Holocaust Museum and with the educational organization Facing History and Ourselves.

"The Bronfman Chair should make it possible for him to produce a much more important statement on Jewish memory, that will shape Jewish thinking on these issues in the 21st century," Sarna said.

Kurtzer and four other finalists in the competition – Jewish Values Network founder Shmuley Boteach, author Anita Diamant, PresenTense magazine founder Ariel Beery and Jerusalem Post editorial page editor Saul Singer – spent Sunday, Feb. 24, on the Brandeis campus being interviewed by the selection committee and presenting their proposals at a symposium.

The selection committee "took into consideration the proposal itself, the ability for that idea to become an accessible book, the candidate's interview, the symposium presentation, the courses candidates proposed to teach at Brandeis, outside recommendations and responses from the symposium audience," Sarna said. "No candidate won in all categories and every candidate impressed us."

The idea of holding a competition of ideas to reinforce the vitality of the Jewish community grows from an initiative by Sears Roebuck and Company chairman Julius Rosenwald in 1929.

Rosenwald offered a $10,000 prize to the writer of the best answer to the question "How can Judaism best adjust itself to and influence modern life?" Participants had two years to prepare, and the competition was won by Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan.

"Judaism as a Civilization," the book Rabbi Kaplan published with help from the Rosenwald prize money, quickly became the most influential Jewish book of its time. It remains in print and continues to generate creative debate today.

A gift from Bronfman Philanthropies of more than $1.5 million will fund the first five years of the new chair.

Previously, Charles Bronfman and his late wife, Andrea, established Brandeis' Institute for Informal Jewish Education, the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Scholarship Fund, and the Professional Development Seminars: Advancing the Israel Experience.

Charles Bronfman was elected a Brandeis Trustee in 2003 after serving as a Fellow since 1992.

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