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June 12, 2017 12:28 pm

New Center for Jewish History Head Prof. David Myers Outlines Ambition to Boost Historical Awareness in Digital Age

avatar by Ben Cohen


David Myers, the Center for Jewish History’s new president. Photo: Scarlett Freund

One of the world’s principal centers for Jewish historical research, located in New York City, announced the appointment a new president and CEO on Monday.

Professor David Myers is taking the helm at the Center for Jewish History, which conducts scholarly research and provides a home for a range of archival collections. Located in downtown Manhattan, the center — which was founded in 1995 and opened its doors in 2000 — contains more than five miles of archival documents spanning one thousand years of Jewish history.

Myers comes to the center from UCLA, where he was the Sady and Ludwig Kahn professor of Jewish history. A prolific author, his books include Resisting History — an examination of German-Jewish thought — and Between Jew and Arab — a study of the Polish-Jewish philosopher Shimon Rawidowicz. He takes over the CEO position from Joel Levy, a former State Department diplomat and prominent Jewish communal figure, who will stay on as a consultant.

Jewish historians have been delighted by Myers’ appointment. Myers is “the very embodiment of what the center should be,” said Jonathan D. Sarna, professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University. David Ellenson, director of the Schusterman Center for Israel Studies at Brandeis University, described Myers as “a preeminent scholar, teacher, writer and editor of the modern Jewish experience.”

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As someone who has carried out his own academic research at the center, Myers said he already had a profound appreciation for its work before being appointed to lead it. “I’m a Jewish historian and this is the Center for Jewish History,” he told The Algemeiner. “In those terms alone, it’s an extraordinarily meaningful institution for me.”

Myers’ overarching goal at the center is to promote “the dissemination of historical knowledge as widely as possible,” he said.

“I don’t think historical knowledge should be preserved exclusively in the hands of a small circle of scholars,” Myers explained. Knowledge of history, he continued, is an essential contribution to “public discourse and Jewish public discourse in particular.”

“History is the DNA of the Jewish people,” he said. “The Jewish people has survived in no small part because of a rich sense of historical consciousness.” The center’s scholarship, he asserted, would “sharpen the pathways of Jewish historical memory.”

“There isn’t a ‘bright line’ distinction between history and memory, and we have an important role to play in fostering a rich sense of historical awareness for Jews, as well as for others who want to learn about how a small minority group has survived, adapted and thrived in a variety of contexts — that tale is a gripping one without precedent in human history,” Myers said.

Myers accented the importance of what he called the “second circle” of users at the center. “There are those who come to the center in search of genealogical knowledge, so as to fill in the missing chapters of their family’s history,” he said. He added that the center planned to expand on its programming aimed at the wider public.

The center came into being through a partnership involving five leading Jewish institutions — the American Jewish Historical Society, American Sephardi Federation, Leo Baeck Institute, Yeshiva University Museum, and YIVO Institute for Jewish Research. The challenge in the next stage of its growth, Myers said, was to illustrate the value of its archive through “the digital medium.”

“That’s the great horizon that we’re making our way towards in the twenty-first century,” he said.”Digital media expands our capacity to engage in the vital work of translation — not in a linguistic sense, but translating arcane research into accessible, digestible information for as wide a public as possible.”

At the same time, it’s important to Myers to retain the experience of seeing and touching genuine documents for the scholarly community. “It’s a thrilling experience to come into contact with those documents, and it’s not one we would give up easily,” he enthused.

While the center’s role is not political, as a professional historian, Myers has a solid grasp of its potential to impact current political debate within and beyond the Jewish community. Jewish history, he argued, with its core themes of “mobility and adaptation” remains a critical example for a world in which flows of economic migrants and refugees are increasing year on year. “How do you engage in a continuous process of acculturation and yet maintain a sense of group distinctiveness?” he asked. The “delicate balancing act” adopted by Jews as a minority group in often hostile societies, Myers answered, contained valuable lessons for a world split between “the forces of globalization and ethno-nationalism.”

Myers intends to deepen the research ties between the center and historians in Israel as part of its work in situating the achievement of a Jewish state within the epic sweep of Jewish history. “We’re the guardians of a two thousand year history, and the history of the State of Israel is obviously a much briefer history,” Myers said. “It’s an extraordinary, monumental experience in the long annals of the Jews — but we’re historians with a panoramic view of the Jewish past, so I would not want to reduce the entirety of Jewish history to the seventy-year period of Israel’s existence.”

Myers stressed the importance of “thinking of ways that we can incorporate the Israeli experience into what we do.” One of his ambitions is to boost cooperation between the center and the forthcoming National Library of Israel. “When the library completed, it’ll be a remarkable repository of the riches of Jewish history, as well as Islamic history and culture,” he said. “If we could somehow combine the resources  of the National Library of Israel and the Center for Jewish History, then we would have what one of my favorite thinkers, Shimon Rawidowicz, called ‘shutafut’ — the partnership that must exist between the State of Israel and the Diaspora.”

Documenting the diversity of American Jewish life is another central project for Myers. “I’m really interested in capturing the experience of different Jewish groups in the United States — among them hasidic  and haredi life in the New York area, the Syrians and the Persians in New York and in Los Angeles, Russian Jewish immigrants to America, and the Israelis who’ve come to America,” he said.

Asked about the potentially daunting nature of his new role at the center, Myers was not remotely phased. “When I was approached about the position, I thought, ‘this is who I really am,'” he said.

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