About Jewish Studies

The history of Jewish Studies at the University of Waterloo

Professor Paul Socken

On November 12, 1992, Christian-Jewish relations in Kitchener-Waterloo faced a transformational event. Holocaust deniers were coming to the area to raise funds, incensing Jews and Christians alike. The minister of Trinity United Church, Rod Sykes, called for a community-wide rally in his church, and he invited the Jewish community to attend, including (then) rabbi of Beth Jacob Synagogue of Kitchener, David Levy. The gathering was highly-charged, profoundly moving and genuinely inspirational. Everyone was given a candle to light and the name of a Holocaust victim to recite. The climax of the evening occurred after the speeches of Mania Kay, a Holocaust survivor who spoke of her experiences and Heidi Richter, a young German Christian woman who sought forgiveness on behalf of Germans. Mania and Heidi embraced tearfully and everyone in the packed church could feel the emotion. Both the minister and the rabbi spoke of the love and brotherhood that were at the core of genuine religious belief, and the evening ended with a commitment to warm and enduring Christian-Jewish relations.

In the audience that evening was Professor Brian Hendley, then Dean of the Faculty of Arts at the University of Waterloo. After the event, Dean Hendley began thinking seriously about concrete ways to combat anti-Semitism and racism. He was further galvanized when he and his wife, Margaret went to see “Schindler’s List”, a short while later. Brian found himself incensed at the outrages committed by the Nazis upon the Jews, portrayed so poignantly in Steven Spielberg’s film: “This stimulated my pragmatic side to wonder what practical thing we could do at UWaterloo to help the young remember what was done, and to preserve and extend the study of Jewish culture” Hendley wrote in an e-mail to me.

Hendley asked to meet with me and suggested the establishment of a Chair of Jewish Studies in the Faculty of Arts. As a member of the Department of French Studies who was actively involved in the Jewish community, I was intrigued by the suggestion. I knew that considerable funds would be required. In fact, when I began enquiries in 1995, I discovered that $2 million was required for an endowed Chair. (It is now $3 million, as the interest from the investment must pay for all costs and activities associated with the Chair.) Despite the great enthusiasm and moral support of then President of the University, Professor James Downey, funds were not available, as the Ontario Harris government had substantially cut university budgets and funding; money for new projects was simply out of the question.

The University’s Development Office was fairly new, swamped with demands and unfamiliar with the Jewish community. I was faced with the overwhelming prospect that I would be responsible for both the academic and financial sides of the new program. I turned to Alexandre Raab, founder of White Rose Nurseries and a Holocaust survivor, for assistance. As soon as he heard my story, without hesitation, he pledged $200,000, which was then 10% of the required sum, and told me to launch my campaign. Inspired and motivated by his incredible generosity, I spoke with Donald Bierstock and Martin Levene of Kitchener-Waterloo. It was my feeling that, while universities are national and even international institutions, a project like this would have little credibility with donors beyond the region if it did not enjoy the support of local patrons. They agreed and each contributed $100,000. With this sum in hand, Ian Lithgow, the then Vice-President of Development at UWaterloo, and I approached Joe Lebovic of Toronto. Lebovic agreed to contribute $600,000 to have the Chair carry the name of  Joseph and Wolf Lebovic. Other major donors – Leslie Dan, Howard Tanenbaum, Joey Tanenbaum – and a host of smaller contributors have brought the total to well over the $2 million mark.

In 2001, we were fortunate enough to hire ProfessorJames Diamond who has served as the Joseph and Wolf Lebovic Chair of Jewish Studies with great distinction as a teacher and researcher. A large proportion of the students in the Jewish Studies Program at Waterloo come from a variety of religious and ethnic backgrounds, and together are studying the contribution of Jewish culture, religion and civilization.

Students currently take courses such as The Holocaust & Film, Great Texts in the Jewish Tradition, Judaism, Maimonides: Philosophy & Religion and Power and Corruption in the Old Testament.

Last year, Professor Diamond arranged to have the Albert Friedberg Cairo Geniza Project establish its administrative headquarters with Jewish Studies at the University of Waterloo. This project is a world leader in research in ancient Jewish texts found in a storehouse in Egypt. Professor Diamond is spearheading the research initiative and its many aspects in the United States, England, Israel and elsewhere.

I felt that the scope of Jewish Studies should extend beyond the classroom into the community, and with that goal in mind I established three annual lectures. Waterloo has hosted professors from the U.S., Canada, Israel and England to speak to increasingly large audiences. Two of the lectures have permanent sponsors: The Alan Kerbel Annual Lecture in Jewish Studies and the O & Y Foundation for Better Communities Annual Lecture in Jewish Studies. In this initiative as well, the majority of the audience comes from all sectors of the community and beyond.

As the Jewish Studies program began to grow, the Jewish Students Association (JSA) was enjoying increased numbers and more activities, but had no permanent venue to host these events. Scrambling for a room on the campus for a bagel brunch or talk was an increasingly frustrating experience. I approached Albert Latner with the problem, and he offered to purchase a house off-campus that would serve as a centre for all Jewish-related events. On September 21, 2001, the Albert and Temmy Latner Centre was established in Waterloo and, since its inception, it has been the focal point for innumerable events and activities for Jewish students at University of Waterloo and Wilfrid Laurier University. Everything from JSA meetings, bagel brunches, talks, shabbatonim (Sabbath celebrations) and study sessions have taken place in the Latner Centre. The Centre also houses 3 students per term who can live in the Centre and enjoy the benefits of the kosher kitchen. The Latner Centre has been such a success that it has inspired more Latner Centres to be established in other university communities.

Establishing a $3 million Chair at a university is an expensive and time-consuming enterprise, so Jewish Studies has had to innovate in other ways, to broaden its horizons at Waterloo. With that in mind, we will establish named, annual visiting professorships and sessional lectureships that will enable the program to offer an increasing array of courses, for an expanding student base and the community at large.