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About the IIJS

The Institute for Israel and Jewish Studies – Columbia University’s center for the academic study and discussion of Jewish life, history, and culture – has long been a national and international leader in the field. Over its half-century history, IIJS has trained many of the field’s leading figures. Its scholars and students have produced lasting and central works of scholarship in a field that continues to grow exponentially across the United States. The Institute is dedicated to the academic study and discussion of Israel and Jewish Studies. Committed to blending rigorous scholarship with cutting edge teaching and intellectual opportunities, IIJS explores the best that’s been thought and said in the field and examines the length and breadth of Jewish history and culture, as well as Israel and all of its complexities.

History of the Institute

Since its beginnings as King's College, Columbia University has fostered one of the most distinguished and longest-standing traditions in the academic study of Jewish civilization:

  • Samuel Johnson, the first president of King's College, exhorted his students to study Hebrew writings, both for their theological value and for the intrinsic beauty of the language.

  • Myles Cooper, Samuel Johnson's successor, stressed Hebrew instruction in King's College in 1773. He noted that Hebrew was a subject to be taught by "proper masters."

  • Gershom Mendes Seixas, appointed a trustee of Columbia College in 1784, provided an early example of excellence in Jewish scholarship.

Interest in Hebrew languages and literature, as well as in the history of Jews in America, grew in the nineteenth century. In the 1880s Columbia led the way toward modern Judaic studies with new programs of instruction in Semitic languages. Temple Emanu-El gave its generous support in 1887 for a lectureship to be free of "all religious bias," and Columbia trustees appointed Richard J. H. Gottheil to a chair in Rabbinic Literature and Semitic Languages. His appointment also led to the enrichment of Columbia University's magnificent Hebrew collection. In 1868, Temple Emanu-El had bought a large collection of Hebrew manuscripts and books, many of which came from the libraries of famous Jewish scholars such as Rabbi Jacob Emden of Altona (1697–1776) and Joseph Almanzi of Padua (1801–60). The trustees of Temple Emanu-El presented this collection to Columbia in 1892 in recognition of the importance of the University's establishment of a permanent chair in Rabbinic Literature.

The collection has continued to expand to this day. It now comprises some 60,000 Hebrew and Yiddish titles, in addition to its large holdings of Jewish scholarly works in Western, Russian, and Slavic languages. The University's Rare Book and Manuscript Library houses 28 Hebrew incunabula, over 300 sixteenth-century printed books, and more than 1,000 manuscripts. In 1947 the library acquired the magnificent Oko-Gebhardt Spinoza Collection, consisting of almost 4,000 books by and about the Dutch Jewish philosopher.

In 1930 Salo Wittmayer Baron was appointed Nathan J. Miller Professor of Jewish History, Literature and Institutions, the first chair in Jewish history to be established at a secular university in the Western world.

In 1952 Columbia appointed the distinguished linguist and Yiddishist Uriel Weinreich as Atran Professor of Yiddish Language, Literature and Culture. Professor Weinreich established at Columbia University the first graduate program in Yiddish studies in the United States.

Perhaps more than anyone, Salo Wittmayer Baron left an indelible stamp on Jewish studies at Columbia University and throughout the scholarly world. His multidisciplinary approach to Judaism, and his interpretation of Judaica as the whole of the Jewish experience in all times, has prevailed and led to Columbia's preeminence in the field. He brought to Columbia's history department the highest level of Jewish scholarship. Professor Baron's years in Morningside Heights saw productivity of prodigious scale in monumental writings on the social and religious history of the Jews. His scholarship illumined the Jewish experience by joining the social sciences, the humanities, and the traditional study of Hebrew.

In 1980 a group of devoted sponsors united to endow the Salo Wittmayer Baron Chair in Jewish History, Culture and Society to honor this outstanding historian and humanist. Professor Yosef H. Yerushalmi, an authority on the history of Spanish and Portuguese Jewry both before and after the expulsion of 1492, was invited to join the Columbia faculty as Baron professor and director of the Center for Israel and Jewish Studies. It was a particularly fitting appointment as Professor Yerushalmi received his Ph.D. at Columbia in 1966 under Professor Baron himself.

The Leonard B. Kaye Chair in Hebrew and Comparative Literature was endowed in 1988 with the appointment of Professor Dan Miron. The Russell and Bettina Knapp Chair in American Jewish History was endowed in 1990 with the appointment of Professor Arthur A. Goren. Professor David Weiss-Halivni was appointed professor of religion in 1987 and named Lucius N. Littauer Professor of Classical Jewish Civilization in 1995.

Because Judaica ranges over many academic disciplines, Jewish studies are not isolated in one department at Columbia. They are integrated among a variety of disciplines. Jewish history is taught within the Department of History; Jewish religion in the Department of Religion; Yiddish language, literature, and folklore in the Department of Germanic Languages and Literatures; Hebrew language and literature in the Department of Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures; and modern Israel in the Middle East Institute. Thus students are trained in one academic field with crossfertilization through contact with other disciplines.

Development of the Institute

The institute reflects the long-standing vitality of Israel and Jewish studies at Columbia, previously anchored in the Center for Israel and Jewish Studies. The center was created by Salo Wittmayer Baron in 1950, twenty years after he assumed the Nathan J. Miller Chair in Jewish History, Literature and Institutions—the first professorship of Jewish history in a secular university outside of Israel. The center has flourished for the last half century, especially after the arrival of Yosef H. Yerushalmi and Michael F. Stanislawski, who have served as director and associate director, respectively, since 1980.

Philanthropy has played a major part in the growth of Jewish studies at Columbia. A gift of 4.3 million dollars in 1981 served to endow the center and to create two new chairs in Jewish studies: the Leonard B. Kaye Chair in Hebrew and Comparative Literature and the Russell and Bettina Knapp Chair in American Jewish History. In the late 1980s, the Lucius N. Littauer Foundation donated 1 million dollars to Columbia to endow the Lucius N. Littauer Chair in Classical Jewish Civilization in the Department of Religion. These chairs, along with the Baron chair, established in 1979, and the Miller chair, have secured the excellence of Jewish studies at Columbia.

Columbia remains one of the leading institutions in Jewish studies in the country and the world. Undergraduate enrollment in these courses has historically been robust and continues to grow. Columbia is also home to the most successful graduate programs in Jewish history and Yiddish studies outside of Israel, and our graduate program in Talmud and Judaism is world renowned. With Professor Dan Miron's assumption of a full-time position at Columbia and Uri S. Cohen's appointment as an assistant professor of Hebrew literature, we expect the graduate program in Hebrew literature to expand significantly.

In recent years, the center has sponsored an increasing number of academic programs and courses on the history and culture of Israel, and professors Miron, Stanislawski, and Cohen continue to teach new courses on Israeli history, Israeli literature, Zionism, and culture, among others. These courses have large enrollments and reach a broad spectrum of students at Columbia College, Barnard College, the School of General Studies, the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, and the School of International and Public Affairs.

A number of other programs also contribute to the vitality of the center. The Salo and Jeannette Baron Prize in Jewish Studies honors the best Columbia dissertation in the field each five years. The monthly Israel and Jewish Studies University Seminar convenes an invited group of scholars, graduate students, and friends from the New York metropolitan area. The Sylvia and Joseph Radov Lectures on Israel and Jewish studies, given once every three years, have brought to campus distinguished scholars and public figures such as Saul Friedlander, Aharon Appelfeld, George Steiner, and Martin Indyk. Additionally, Professor Cohen is leading the effort to establish at Columbia the most important archive anywhere of Israeli feature films and documentaries, from the pre-state period to the present.

It is against this backdrop that the trustees approved the new Institute for Israel and Jewish Studies, opening up new directions for Columbia's leadership in this vital field.