Twenty-five years ago Allen and Joan Bildner had the idea that by providing seed money to establish a center for the study of Jewish life it could provide outreach to the broader Jewish community through Rutgers University and enhance Jewish life on campus.
The West Orange couple is no longer alive but the Allen and Joan Bildner Center for the Study of Jewish Life lives on, pioneering the idea of a Jewish film festival, which is now the largest in the state and has drawn 110,000 participants; instructed educators from throughout the state and around the world in becoming master teachers of the Holocaust through its Herbert and Leonard Littman Families Holocaust Resource Center; and offers free public lectures and events that have drawn 25,000 to the New Brunswick campus.
About 12,000 have taken its online courses, and it spawned a Jewish studies program, which became the department of Jewish studies. Now distinct from the center, it offers both bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Jewish studies.
The center has also served as a bridge between the campus Jewish community and the university’s administration on issues that have roiled colleges across the nation such as antisemitism, Zionism and Israel.
“People have tripwires, but we are a resource for the administration to understand some of these issues and we have a very strong rapport with the senior administration,” said Center Academic Director Dr. Nancy Sinkoff. The center is under the auspices of the university’s School of Arts and Sciences. It is a place that has evolved with time and interests of the Jewish community and seamlessly pivoted to virtual programming when the COVID-19 pandemic shuttered in-person activities, garnering a worldwide audience for its online courses, lectures and programming.
It is just that adaptability and sensitivity to the needs of the Jewish community that has made it an internationally respected institution.
“We provide cultural events and cutting-edge speakers… New Jersey is a big state and unless you commute into New York City or Philadelphia you wouldn’t see these events and speakers, but we provide them in central New Jersey,” said Sinkoff, who took over her position in 2018.
“We have provided speakers and events on complex issues that have forced people to think about all kinds of things, think about being Jewish in New Jersey and in the United States,” she added. “What was important 25 years ago is different than what is important now. I think Bildner has been critical to Jewish life in New Jersey and we hope to continue to be.”
The “visionary gift” from the Bildners allowed center leaders to explore initiatives that have grown over time, said Center Managing Director Karen Small, who joined its staff 24 years ago.
“Because I’ve been here from that first pivotal year, I got to see all the new initiatives the center took,” she said, using the film festival as an example of what was then an innovative idea that came out of a lunch date between herself, inaugural Center Executive Director Dr. Yael Zerubavel and local philanthropist Sharon Karmazin, whose Karma Foundation has been a major supporter of the festival.
“The festival just grew out of this kernel of an idea and we took this and turned it into a big community event that has had a tremendous effect on the community,” said Small, who pointed out that while Jewish film festivals are now common, they were virtually unheard of 23 years ago when the Bildner began its annual showings.
The center’s goal to explore and enrich a pluralistic Jewish community has led to bringing in diverse speakers such as Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, former chief rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the British Commonwealth, who spoke on confronting religious violence; culinary historian Michael Twitty, who is Black, Jewish, gay and connected food to social justice. It hosted Daniel Liebskind, the Polish-born son of Holocaust survivors and architect who oversaw the master plan for current One World Trade Center, to commemorate the 10tth anniversary of 9/11. The center has also brought Jewish and Arab-American leaders together to discuss antisemitism and Islamophobia.
Among the 50 visiting scholars-in-residence it has brought in was Moshe Zonder, the screenwriter for the television shows “Fauda” and “Teheran,” which have become hits on Netflix and Apple TV, respectively. Zonder also taught a course on screenwriting at Rutgers.
“There he touched students from throughout the university, who didn’t know they were getting this major screenwriter and it turned out to be a great experience for the students and him,” said Small. “He told me it was one of the most diverse classes he has ever taught. Here is this Israeli artist and writer who on a college campus was able to give a different interpretation of Israel.”
The master-teacher program has reached more than 1,000 educators—including a teacher who came in from France to take part—since its inception in 1997, three years after New Jersey mandated Holocaust education, said Small.
Vicki Kessler, a Somerville High School educator has participated for years in both the online courses and advanced summer program, although she missed this summer’s program while leading a group of high school students to Holocaust sites in Europe. Kessler is now helping to write the new state K-8 Holocaust curriculum through connections made through the Rutgers program.
“In all honesty I’ve traveled around the state for training and I get more from driving 20 minutes to Rutgers,” said Kessler, who teaches French and a full-year Holocaust and genocide course. “I always ask if I can have a seat at the back of the room as long as I’m not keeping another teacher from going. The proximity, the quality, the connection to other teachers who are bringing these challenging topics to the classroom have brought me a supportive community that you simply can’t get anywhere else. They do an amazing job of bringing in experts on topics from looted art to reforging life after the Holocaust to life in the ghettos to the American reaction to the Holocaust.”
The film festival is unique in its approach of bringing everything from full-length features to documentaries, Israeli and other foreign films and Israeli television series, with actors, screenwriters, directors or recognized educational experts appearing live after the showing to speak about its subject and engage the audience in a question and answer.
“The film festival has really been an important cultural and social experience for the community,” said Small. “I remember times when people have said to me after a film that something like that happened to me or that they knew someone in the film. Over the years the film festival has shown hundreds of films, which bring out issues of every facet of the Jewish community.”
The pandemic forced the festival, scheduled to run this year from Oct. 30 to Nov. 13, to go virtual, but this year it will be offered in a hybrid fashion with both live and virtual presentations to accommodate both those who may be immunocompromised or elderly and those who miss the social interaction of seeing films in person and being able to interact with speakers.
Zerubavel, a native of Israel who served as the center’s first executive director for more than 20 years and left to continue her scholarly research and writing, called shaping the center “an amazing opportunity and a challenging and highly rewarding experience.”
“Since the center’s early offerings of public programs, the large audiences that its activities brought to Rutgers made it abundantly clear that there was a need and broad interest in what the center had to offer,” she said. “I believe that the key to the success in the center’s development was the immediate impact it had on the cultural and intellectual life and the productive collaboration with individuals who wished to support its further development in significant ways.”
By Debra Rubin