Memorial Foundation for Jewish Culture
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New York, N.Y. 10004

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Memorial Foundation Board Briefings - Recent News November 2012

November 20, 2012


The Foundation's office is located in lower Manhattan in Zone A, the area in which Sandy's impact was most destructive in Manhattan. Our building was closed for one week; when it was re-opened, we had no phone and internet service for an additional two weeks.

November is usually our busiest month because we receive and process most of the applications to our Scholarship and Fellowship programs during that time. This November, we were also planning to complete all arrangements for the Mini Nahum Goldmann Fellowship that we will be organizing in January in Sao Paulo.

Although our phone service has not yet been restored, we were successful with the help of Aron Trauring, our technological consultant, and the yeomen work of our staff to devise a way to reopen our internet service, while our building was still disconnected to the internet. Three Nahum Goldmann Fellowship alumni from Brazil, Fernando Lottenberg, Lilian Starobinas and Alberto Milkewitz were of help in moving our arrangements forward there for the Mini Fellowship. Kudos to them and to the Orthodox Union, a member agency, across the street from our office for their generous offer in the latter part of the third week to use the phones in their office.

Enlarging the Impact of the Foundation's Scholarship and Fellowship Programs

The Foundation's Scholarship and Fellowship program has been the heart of our enterprise since the Foundation's inception in 1965. We have awarded more than 13,000 grants in the Scholarship and Fellowship programs. The payoff of these programs has been enormous for the Jewish community. The Scholarship and Fellowship recipients of this year's grants will undoubtedly also make a difference, a real difference, in Jewish life in the 21st century, as initiators of actions or purveyors of ideas that can transform the character of Jewish institutions and communities around the world. In my next report I will share with you profiles of some of those recipients.

In this report I will try to more fully demonstrate the impact these programs can have by highlighting here two past Urbach Fellowship grant recipients: Professors Avinoam Rosenak and Benny Porat. They point to what I believe are the beginnings of a potentially different and wider kind of impact resulting from our grants.

Prof. Rosenak, who was awarded an Ephraim Urbach Post-Doctoral Fellowship in 1999-2000, and two Doctoral Scholarships and a Fellowship in prior years, has recently become a tenured professor at the Department of Jewish Thought at Hebrew University. He was also simultaneously appointed as chair of that department and, we are told, is reshaping it.

Prof. Rosenak's research and publications deal with the philosophy of halacha in the modern age. This connection between halacha and Jewish thought is especially evident in the two schools of Jewish thought - the mystical and the rational - that figure prominently in the history of halacha, exemplified by Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik and Rabbi Avraham Isaac Kook, to whom Rosenak has devoted much of his research.

It is our contention that Prof. Rosenak's field of study and his seminal research and publications are not only important for Jewish scholarship, meritorious as they are, but also for their own sake. The field of Jewish thought generally and the specific areas in which Prof. Rosenak specializes have important implications for the Jewish people today, both in the Diaspora and Israel.

The essence of their critical importance is rooted in the enormous challenges that Klal Yisrael confronts today in the encounter between Jewish thought and modern culture. Some of the questions that Jewish philosophers and thinkers need to wrestle with today are the tensions between universalism and particularism, between loyalty to the community and the pursuit of individualism, between rationalism and religious faith, and between Judaism and democracy. We need to define the threats, explicit and implicit, in modernity and contemporary culture to Jewish civilization and thought and, on the other hand, to enlarge the possibility of a fruitful dialogue between modernity and contemporary Jewish life in areas that can enhance our faith and culture.

For this type of encounter we need young Jewish scholars like Rosenak to help explicate the history of Jewish thought and how contemporary Jewish thinkers like Rabbi Soloveitchik, Rabbi Kook and others articulated and responded to the challenges posed to Jewish faith and thought in the contemporary world.

Furthermore, at the Foundation, we believe that young scholars like Prof. Rosenak have an important role to play, not only at the university, but also to share their work and wisdom with the wider Jewish community, especially with our communal leadership, present and future, as to how to preserve and enhance Judaism's role in our communities and the wider society. The Ephraim Urbach program is a modest vehicle for helping to develop those scholars and to enable them, through bodies like the Memorial Foundation to engage and educate the Jewish community.

The same is true of Prof. Benny Porat, a recipient of the Ephraim Urbach Post Doctoral Fellowship in 2010-11, who has served on the Faculty of Law at the Hebrew University, as a research associate at the Center for Israeli Democracy and, after receipt of the Urbach Fellowship, as director of the Institute of Research in Jewish Law (Mishpat Ivri) at the Hebrew University.

Mishpat Ivri, unlike Halacha which encompasses the entire religious tradition, focuses on the Jewish legal tradition based on our Scriptures as interpreted in the Talmud and as applied by the rabbinic courts throughout the ages. The Department of Jewish Law at Hebrew University has been a leader of the movement promoting the introduction of Jewish legal elements and Talmudic principles into the legal system of Israel. As the head of The Institute for Research in Jewish Law, Prof. Porat is spearheading the study of halachic texts and the application of Jewish legal principles into Israeli law, initiated under the pioneering leadership of Prof. Menachem Elon, whose work we long supported, as well as that of his many students.

As a result of our support of Prof. Porat and his colleagues in this field, the Foundation has assisted not only the current blossoming of studies that cover the entire gamut of Jewish legal thought and practice, but also the incorporation of Jewish law into the Israeli legal system of the future not through religious coercion, but rather though research and education. Everything I stated earlier about Prof. Rosenak is equally applicable to Prof. Porat.

In that connection too, a special academic symposium was held in 2011 at the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities in Jerusalem by the Memorial Foundation, the World Union of Jewish Studies and the Israel Academy, organized by Prof. Yosef Kaplan, the president of the World Union of Jewish Studies. The program commemorated the 20th anniversary of the death of Prof. Ephraim E. Urbach, for whom the scholarships were named, who served as Vice President of the Memorial Foundation for many years as well as the President of the World Union of Jewish Studies. It featured 12 renowned scholars who were recipients of Ephraim Urbach Post-Doctoral Fellowships from among 63 who received those awards from 1996 to 2010.

Among those who participated in that special symposium were:

Prof. Simcha Emanuel (Urbach Fellow, 1996-97) Associate Professor of Talmud, The Mandel Institute of Jewish Studies, Faculty of Humanities, Hebrew University of Jerusalem; Prof. Adiel Schremer (1999-2000), Associate Professor, Faculty of Jewish Studies and Dept. of Jewish Studies, Bar Ilan University; Dr. Hillel Newman (2000-01), Professor, Jewish History, Haifa University; Prof. Elisheva Baumgarten (2002-03), Senior Lecturer in the Department of Jewish History and the Gender Studies Graduate Program at Bar Ilan University, and Head of the Fanya Gottesfeld Heller Center for the Study of Women in Judaism; Prof. Yohanan Petrovsky-Shtern (2002-03), Associate Professor of Jewish History and Director, Crown Family Center of Jewish Studies at Northwestern University; Manuela Consonni (2004-05), Professor, Head of Italian Studies Program, Dept. of Romance and Latin American Studies, School of History, Hebrew University of Jerusalem; Geoffrey Herman (2007-08), Assistant Professor of Talmud and Rabbinics, The Jewish Theological Seminary of America, and Research Fellow, International Consortium on the Humanities.

All these young professors are or will become great scholars but all have the potential, if so committed and directed, to re-shape the cultural profile of the Jewish people in our time, to which Nahum Goldmann aspired when he established the Foundation and which, under Prof. Schorsch's excellent leadership, we are currently assiduously pursuing.

May we be able to continue to do so in the future, developing the "social capital" of the Jewish people, identifying and supporting the next generation of the cultural, intellectual and religious leadership who can impact not only on Jewish scholarship but on the Jewish community around the world.

With warm regards.
Sincerely yours,

Dr. Jerry Hochbaum
Executive Vice President