The Center for Jewish Ethics at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College has received a transformative grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) to fund cross-disciplinary research into race, racism and the American Jewish experience. The center’s aims have an impact far beyond the academy by developing educational materials and programs for youth, individual adult learners, and communities.
The one-year, $199,850 grant will enable the Levin-Lieber Program in Jewish Ethics to establish and run a new initiative tentatively called “Race, Religion and American Judaism: Cross-Disciplinary Research, Public Scholarship and Curriculum Development.”
The National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) announced the grant on Oct. 4 as part of $87.8 million in American Rescue Plan funding to nearly 300 cultural and educational institutions in all 50 states, the District of Colombia, Guam and Northern Mariana Islands. According to the NEH, the funding will enable pivotal institutions to recover from the economic impact of the pandemic, retain and rehire workers, reopen sites and launch, or continue programs.
“This funding represents a great vote of confidence in us organizationally, in the Center for Jewish Ethics and in Reconstructionist Rabbinical College,” said Rabbi Mira Wasserman, Ph.D., who directs the center and serves as assistant professor of rabbinic literature at the college. “The grant is also a demonstration of how scholarship makes a relevant difference in contemporary society.”
The Center for Jewish Ethics at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College pursues research and public scholarship that draws on Jewish literature and history to help people and communities address the ethical challenges of contemporary life. The Reconstructionist movement has made an explicit commitment to centering the voices and experiences of Jews who are Black, Indigenous and People of Color and to combatting racism in its many manifestations. As the movement’s center for ethical inquiry, the Center for Jewish Ethics focuses on moral challenges of public concern like the pursuit of vibrant civil discourse, the cultivation of safe and equitable communal institutions, and institutional racism.
Like many nonprofit organizations, the Center for Jewish Ethics had its activities severely curtailed by the pandemic. The center was forced to cancel its central project for 2019-20: an in-person Ethics beit midrash dedicated to the cultivation of respectful discourse across political and religious differences. Instead, the center pivoted and partnered with the University of Pennsylvania to offer a public online lecture series called “Jews, Race, and Religion.” That series generated an overwhelmingly positive response, with participants asking for more scholarship and for scholars to pursue pressing ethical questions in dialogue with one another and the public.
The NEH grant enables the ethics center to do just that. The funding enables the center to hire a project coordinator; the search is underway. The coordinator will recruit a mutli-disciplinary team of 10 scholars who will identify new research questions surrounding race, racism and Jewish life. Scholars will meet in teams to develop research papers and lectures focusing on Jewish identity and theories of race and religion; race and the American Jewish experience (including the history of immigration, discrimination, and activism); racial and cultural diversity in American Jewish life today and a Jewish ethical response to racism.
Scholars will record lectures and collaborate with other educators in the development of curricula on each of the four focus areas. This will result in self-directed online courses featuring the recorded lectures; curricula with discussion guides for community-based adult learning; and curricula with activity guides for youth in summer camps, schools and afterschool programs.
“With our cross-disciplinary approach, we will have the benefit of having historians talk to scholars of religion and critical race theory,” said Wasserman. “We will be thinking from the beginning about how our research can impact how we teach about Judaism and race to children and adults.”
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