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The Greening of Jewish Studies: Michigan Gets $20 Million Donation

A $20 million gift has given a gigantic boost to Jewish scholarship at the University of Michigan. The vision of 14 scholars from every field of Jewish studies spending two semesters together in one building with no teaching obligations is so compelling to Samuel and Jean Frankel that the couple donated the money to bring it to life.

The Frankels, who created the Frankel Center for Judaic Studies at the University of Michigan’s Ann Arbor campus nearly two decades ago, are now funding the Frankel Institute for Advanced Judaic Studies.

The gift, according to university representatives, is the largest ever given to the university’s College of Literature, Science and the Arts. It is also, they say, the largest ever given for Jewish studies at any university.

The director of the Frankel Institute, Todd Endelman, said the new research institute will look for scholars in a range of fields. Historians, scholars of literature and linguistics, theologians, philosophers, as well as specialists in Yiddish, Hebrew, Ladino, Aramaic, and other languages all will be welcome.

The institute will look mainly for established academics, but will welcome “a small number of post-doctoral students as well,” said Endelman, who is also the university’s William Haber Professor of Modern Jewish History. “We want a mix of bright, promising young scholars and senior people in the field.”

There will be a new theme each year, broad enough, drawn from among such potential topics as Jewish political behavior in periods of crisis, Jewish responses to catastrophe and Jewish-Christian relations over the centuries.

“Those are the kinds of topics that are broad enough to bring people in from all disciplines and time periods,” Endelman said.

Plans call for the institute to open in the fall of 2007.

Once the institute opens, “If a great Jewish poet wants to come from Tel Aviv and study, you’ll suddenly see that the great poet can come,” said Marshall Weinberg, a University of Michigan alumnus and JTA board member who has given a great deal of time and money to his alma mater.

“He will be under no obligation to teach — although of course he can if he wants to — or to do anything else,” Weinberg said.

The scholars would mix with graduate students, both formally and casually, not only acting as role models but also passing on knowledge through conversation.

The Frankels, who live in suburban Detroit, both graduated from the University of Michigan, as did many of their family members. Their son Stuart and his wife, Maxine, donated $10 million to the school in May to expand its art museum.

The relationship between Jewish students and the University of Michigan is an old one, Endelman said. It began in the period between the two world wars, he said, when top colleges in the eastern United States had quotas that limited the numbers of Jews they accepted as students.

“The big state universities did not have those quotas,” he said, and public university systems in states like New York and Massachusetts had not yet been established.

“State university systems like Illinois, Wisconsin, and Michigan, which had good reputations, attracted Jewish students,” he said. “And once the tradition got established it continued to go on, from generation to generation.”

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