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February 6, 2004

A Boon to Students And to the Academy

Jacob Neusner is right in his opinion article to express concern that Judaic studies programs will become dominated by the narrow interests of the organized Jewish community (“A Threat to the Academy,” January 30). However, we should not let these concerns obscure the ways in which Judaic studies programs can stay within the mission of the American academy and still promote Jewish continuity in important ways. For these reasons, the Jewish community should still invest in and support Judaic studies with its broader goals in mind.

We must disabuse ourselves of the notion that good academic scholarship is always disengaged from the concerns of any particular community. On the contrary, some of the best academic writing in areas like history, cultural studies, political theory and religion is done when wrestling with the most important issues facing the community from which the students and faculty are drawn. The role of institutions of higher learning in this country is in part to be a forum for discussion of the great issues facing America, and having Judaic studies programs in the academy means that Judaism and the Jewish experience have a strong voice within this discussion. The Jewish community should give its support to Judaic studies, not because it will serve its sectarian educational needs, but because, much like African-American studies at its best, it serves to promote both Jewish pride in Jewish culture and an important place for Judaism as a legitimate part of American culture.

Moreover, the fact that Judaic studies courses are for Jew and non-Jew alike will only strengthen their value for Jewish students. Judaic studies courses, no matter who teaches them, will usually succeed in introducing students to the contributions of Jewish history and literature to the great questions of human civilization. For Jewish students with little Jewish background, these courses offer a safe, secular context in which to learn about Judaism, perhaps for the first time; for Jewish students with strong Jewish backgrounds, these courses can enhance their ability to frame their Jewish commitments in a way that is intelligible and sympathetic to people of different backgrounds. Because most American Jews are both strongly proud of their American citizenship and their Jewish identity, Judaic studies courses and programs offer a context for the strengthening of Jewish identity precisely because these programs themselves demonstrate a continued Jewish commitment to Judaism and Jewish culture that is consistent with a complete commitment to the good of American society.

The educational and programmatic goals of the Jewish community should never come to subvert the mission and values of the academy, especially the value of academic freedom. However, there is much Judaic studies can accomplish both for Jews and our American neighbors alike.

Rabbi William Plevan

New York, N.Y.

The writer is a graduate student in the Department of Religion at Princeton University.

When Good Deeds Are Met With Ingratitude

After reading Leonard Fein’s inspiring article about rabbinical students volunteering in El Salvador (“Offering Our Services Between Services in El Salvador,” January 30), I read a story from the Jewish Telegraphic Agency on the pro-Palestinian activities of the mayor of the country’s capital city.

The mayor gave the keys to the city to a Palestinian emissary and named a square “Palestine Square,” where there is a monument with the words “Palestine, Holy Land” superimposed over a map of Israel. The monument is reportedly backed by two major presidential candidates in the upcoming elections. I wonder what Fein thinks of American Jewish efforts in that country now. Is this the response we get for our efforts?

Rabbi Marion Shulevitz

New York, N.Y.

Survivors Group Isn’t Straying From Mandate

As one of the founders of the Holocaust Survivors Foundation-USA, I feel it is necessary to respond to Gunther Karger’s letter to the editor. (“Survivor Group Strays,” January 30).

HSF did not stray from its initial goal of obtaining a national home health-care plan for survivors; this is still our ultimate goal. Officials of the groups that could have promoted such a plan described it as far too costly if all survivors regardless of financial status had to be included. Although some state insurance commissioners were in favor of such a plan, the necessary funds and administrative structures to start such a program were not obtainable. Despite what Karger writes, there was never a “window of opportunity.” Based on the limited amount of known restitution funds available, HSF shifted its focus in order to obtain, at least, funding for health care for the most needy among us.

Karger accuses HSF of taking “an ongoing adversarial position vis-à-vis the Claims Conference and the Federal Court administering the Swiss bank fund.” But HSF has the highest respect for Judge Edward Korman, who also has indicated his intention to assist the most needy first. As for our criticism of the Claims Conference, we invoked the power of public opinion by publicizing the allocations made by the Claims Conference for projects of no benefit to survivors because we were unable to obtain the release of the necessary funding for home health care.

HSF intends to pursue its vision of obtaining health care for all survivors — wherever they live — and will, in the interim, unselfishly persevere in its efforts to achieve these benefits for the most needy among us. Attempts to discredit HSF leadership are certainly not going to be of any help in achieving any kind of program for Shoah survivors in need and in their final days.

Leo Rechter


Holocaust Survivors Foundation-USA

Queens, N.Y.

To Promote Israel, Give Teens the Real Thing

You report that prominent Jewish communal officials and educators have settled on a new approach to teaching undergraduates how to defend Israel: Start in high school (“Israel Advocacy Coalition Targeting High Schools,” January 23). What has taken these leaders so long to figure this out?

The Jewish Federation of the North Shore, in partnership with the Robert I. Lappin Foundations, pioneered this approach decades ago, and for the past eight years has funded fully subsidized teen trips to Israel or Eastern Europe with an Israel component, complete with pre- and post-trip educational programs and community service. Our program is an excellent model of an effective, hands-on way of engaging our young adults in Israel advocacy.

In our community, the full subsidy has translated into nearly 50% of eligible teens participating in the program. Removing cost as a barrier to participation ensures that you will reach the greatest number of teens possible.

Our teens come back from the trips energized, proud to be Jewish, supportive of the State of Israel and a source of inspiration to the next generation of young people. What we’re doing helps to keep our children Jewish.

Time and resources could better be spent on funding teen trips to Israel rather than developing advocacy workshops. The best way to mobilize and educate our teens is to provide them with the real thing.

Deborah Coltin


Jewish Continuity Committee

Lisa Janiak


Israel Teen Programs

Jewish Federation of the North Shore

Salem, Mass.

Greed and Oppression Brought Down the Shah

It’s a stretch to say that the Shah of Iran was brought down by his ban on the chador, as Kathleen Peratis suggests was the case at the conclusion of her column (“France Loses Its Head Over Headscarves,” January 23). His oppressive regime and greed were more likely to have been responsible for his overthrow.

Karen Jordan

Camden, Maine

Peres’s Flawed Analogy On American A-Bombs

Shimon Peres sketches a bold but fundamentally erroneous analogy about the American decision to drop nuclear weapons on Japan (“Shimon Peres: Time Is Running Out for Likud Party,” January 16). It was not the destruction wrought by kamikaze pilots that moved the United States to use its ultimate weapon but rather the horrendous cost in American and Japanese lives in the conquest of the islands of Iwo Jima and Okinawa. Taking the Japanese home islands by force would have been infinitely more costly. And perhaps, some say, there was a desire to impress and awe the Soviets.

Robert Moses Shapiro

New York, N.Y.

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