In 1957, a time when McCarthyism swept across the nation, a young, liberal rabbi named Albert Plotkin began teaching Arizona State University's first Jewish studies class in a small Protestant chapel on the Tempe campus.
About half the 15 students who took the course, an introduction to the Hebrew Bible, were Jewish.
This humble beginning created the backbone for ASU's Jewish Studies Program, which now enrolls hundreds of students annually, plus thousands more who take courses with Jewish studies content.
In the years since the politically tenuous late-1950s, an era Plotkin describes as "horrible ... filled with witch hunts ... and intellectual anti-Semitism," Jewish studies classes at ASU grew into an official department. In the 1980s, that department was formally established as a program.
Today, almost 50 years after its inception, the department is going through a transition in leadership and adoption of a vision statement that outlines the future of the program, according to Dr. Joel Gereboff, ASU chairman of the department of religious studies, who came to the program in 1978. At the time, he was a co-director of the program with Gordon Weiner, professor of history, who has since retired.
The opportunity to re-evaluate the current program came with the departure of the program's current director, Professor Jack Kugelmass, Ph.D., who is one of the founders of The New Shul in Scottsdale and well known for his efforts in community outreach. After seven years at ASU, he begins his new position as director of the Center for Jewish Studies at the University of Florida on July 1.
Until Kugelmass's replacement is found, Gereboff will act as interim director of the ASU Jewish studies program, while continuing his duties as department chairman.
In addition, an entry-level assistant professor position has been created to replace Arieh Bruce Saposnik, Ph.D., who is currently a postdoctoral research associate in the Jewish Studies program and recipient of the Rabbi Albert Plotkin Endowment in Jewish Studies award. He is also relocating to the University of Florida Jewish Studies department.
The search for a new director, who will oversee both the Jewish Studies Program and a new Center for Jewish Studies, will begin in August, said Gereboff.
The search process includes advertising nationally and "candidates via nomination," according to Gereboff. "We hope to be able to do interviews in the fall and make an offer in the fall or early spring."
"I never dreamed (the program) would be this big," said Plotkin, 84, who still teaches on a limited basis at ASU, and is rabbi emeritus at Temple Beth Israel. "At the time (I started), I was grateful to have one course, and now it's one of the outstanding programs in the country."
Although at press time ASU could not provide an exact breakdown of the numbers of students in the program, Jim Hathaway, media relations manager of the ASU College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, said that about 20 students each year receive a certificate in Jewish Studies, about 400-500 students enroll in Jewish Studies courses each year, and thousands more take courses that have some Jewish Studies content.
Gereboff explained that the program's new vision includes the development of two entities: a program for Jewish studies as well as a Center for Jewish Studies.
The center would "essentially carry forward many of the same kind of endeavors that were done under the old Jewish Studies program," he said.
In practical terms, Gereboff explained that there has been a "tremendous growth" of centers at the university. "Centers are primarily research units that are designed to foster individual and particularly inter- and trans-disciplinary research," he said.
Projects involving community outreach, such as academic conferences and lecture series, will continue through both the program and the center.
Gereboff said that besides the transition in leadership, "most of the activities will remain in much of the same form as they have always been in at least for the foreseeable future."
He said he chaired a planning committee this spring that "gave us the opportunity to lay out what we've done and give us a vision for the future."
One of the goals will be to "build on areas where we can draw on strengths of the university and cultivate them more," he said, and gave some examples: "We have tremendous strength in Latin American Jewry which then intersects well with the strength of the university. We have strengths in Judaism in the arts, Latin American literature, Hebrew literature, Jewish art, Jews and dance, Judaism and science."
In their own unique ways, both Gereboff and Plotkin are the pioneers of Jewish studies at ASU. Gereboff now sits at the base of the program's powerful trajectory into the future; while Plotkin remains the voice of the program's vibrant history and colorful beginnings.
In a telephone interview last week, Plotkin explained how he chose the material for his trendsetting class so many decades ago. "Learning about the Hebrew Bible is important for understanding the Judeo-Christian tradition because Christianity was based on the Hebrew Bible. It is important to have an understanding of both religions," he said.
He explained further about why he held those first classes in a church. "I began the class with the hope that we would eventually have a department of Jewish studies. I taught the class in a Protestant chapel so I wouldn't cross the line of separation of church and state (at a state university)," he said.
The chapel, which still stands on campus, had been a gift to ASU from the Danbury World Religious Association. The Jewish Studies course was underwritten by the Jewish Chautauqua Society, according to Plotkin.
"We were a small community in the middle of the desert and this was the time to start a class," said Plotkin. "During this era, anyone who was a liberal was 'a danger,' and the only answer to that was knowledge and education. Personally, this was something I could do."
He said he experienced "no opposition" to his efforts and that the program evolved "step by step."
Initially, he advertised his course in the Phoenix Jewish News (now the Jewish News of Greater Phoenix) because "Where else could you advertise?" he said. "Over time it grew to about 40 students, and when ASU created the department, (student numbers) grew significantly. When Dr. Gereboff came he expanded it and built up the department marvelously," Plotkin said.
"Now it is expanding even more."
Donna V. Cohen is a freelance writer in Cave Creek.