Add a talit, or prayer shawl, to the more familiar “town and gown” connection, and you have what Dr. Dennis Klein envisaged for the new University Lecture Series at the JCC of Central New Jersey in Scotch Plains: a linking of campuses — community and academic — around themes of Jewish culture and identity.
The series is hosted by the JCC in partnership with the Jewish Studies Program at Kean University in Union, and Rutgers University’s Allen and Joan Bildner Center for the Study of Jewish Life. Michele Dreiblatt, the JCC’s director of cultural arts and education, who is organizing the program, said she hopes to draw experts from other institutions in the area.
Klein, director of Kean’s Jewish Studies Program, is one of the three speakers in the opening March lineup, together with Dr. Gilbert Kahn, a professor in the university’s Department of Political Science, and Edward Portnoy, who teaches Yiddish language and literature as an adjunct professor at Rutgers.
Klein will give a talk on Thursday, March 4, on being “Jewish in America: Am I Giving up Something?” His hypothesis is that American Jews might be facing a situation unique in Jewish history — where they actually have a choice between being Jewish and participating fully in the surrounding culture. “We will explore this premise and provide evidence that substantiates it,” he wrote of his lecture. On the other hand, in true Judaic tradition, he will also cite commentaries that challenge that notion — asking whether, in fact, this predicament has occurred before.
On March 11, Kahn, who regularly writes op-eds for NJ Jewish News, will tackle the question: “The U.S. and Israel Today: The Best of Times or the Worst of Times?” He plans to examine the current relationship between the two countries as it reflects the way changes in special interest group behavior is affecting the political actions of American Jews. He will put these present-day shifts into historic context, from before World War II and the Holocaust, through the establishment of the State of Israel, to the threats of terrorism and nuclear weapons that Israel faces today.
Portnoy’s topic on March 18 is “Jewish Pop Culture on the Lower East Side in the Early 20th Century.” The area, he says, was about much more than the immigrants’ survival struggle and exploitive sweatshops. The Yiddish culture that flourished there, led by the Yiddish press and theater, had an influence that stretched way beyond Houston Street, to vaudeville and popular music, radio, and film. And the children of those immigrants took their distinctly Jewish attitude into the broader realms of culture.
The topics are deliberately weighty — as well as entertaining. Dreiblatt said the intention is to offer challenging, thought-provoking material that inspires intellectual conversation and debate.
Debbie Feldman is cochairing the program. She said she and other organizers see the series as a way to link the JCC community with “the great resources in our own back yard.”
She said, “While our young families are very important to us — and we hope those parents come too —we feel it’s really important to address the interests of the baby-boomers, or those ‘aging in place.’
“This is a chance to provide easy and convenient access to the kind of intellectual stimulation so many of us enjoyed when we were in college or grad school, and maybe didn’t have as much of after we moved to the suburbs.”