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Memorial Foundation Board Briefings - Recent News March 2005

January 10, 2005

Professor Jonathan Sarna, a Foundation recipient, awarded the National Jewish Book Council's top prize

Jonathan Sarna, who received two Foundation Doctoral Scholarship grants in 1977-78 and 1978-79 and a Fellowship grant in 1982-83 for his work on American Jewry, has been awarded the top prize of the National Jewish Book Council for his magisterial work, American Judaism: A History. The volume, prepared in conjunction with the 350th anniversary of Jewish settlement in North America, was published by Yale University Press.

Professor Sarna, in this rich and insightful book, argues that the central theme of Jewish history in Europe is peripheral to the story of American Jews. American Jewish history, according to Sarna, is a great exception to the notion that Jewish history is one of persecution and destruction. Rather, it is a story of Jews accommodating to freedom and reacting creatively to the challenges of an open society.

Earlier historical accounts of religion in America, treated religion, including Judaism, as a transient, if not trivial, chapter in the secular, social culture of American groups. In his volume, the first systematic, serious, and comprehensive history of Judaism in America, Sarna traces the evolution of the "unified synagogue-community" of early American Jewish history to the more pluralistic "community of synagogues" that exists today.

Sarna argues that the story of American Judaism is neither one of linear ascent or descent, but embraces both costs and casualties and revival and revitalization. His model is one of challenge and response, American Judaism's fortunes waxing and waning as they confront the ever-changing problems and opportunities American society posed for American Jewry.

The vigorous Jewish life achieved in the United States, Sarna attributes to the critical role played by Jewish leadership. Indeed, he contends that American Jews shaped their history more actively than Jews anywhere else except for Israel.

Professor Sarna concludes on a most optimistic note, emphasizing the resiliency of American Jewry and his belief that American Jews will find, as they have in the past, creative ways to maintain and revitalize their community.

Professor Jonathan Sarna is today one of America's foremost scholars of American Jewish history, religion and culture. He currently serves as the Joseph H. and Belle R. Braun Professor of American Jewish History at Brandeis University, chairs the Academic Board of the Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives, and is also the chief historian of the National Museum of American Jewish History and of the 350th Commemoration of Jewish Life in America, 1654-2004. He has authored or edited more than twenty books on American Jewish history and life.

Prof. Sarna has served as a reader for both our institutional and doctoral and fellowship programs for many decades. He has also been a faculty member at the Foundation's Nahum Goldmann Fellowship programs in Europe and Australia. Most recently, he served on the Foundation's Committee for Hebrew in America, which developed the pioneering program now being initiated in the UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey.

We congratulate him on this magnificent volume and derive nachas from our modest role in helping him in the early years of his now distinguished career.

Warm regards.
Sincerely yours,

Dr. Jerry Hochbaum
Executive Vice President