“The Jewish experience has been part of the human experience for a long time,” said Rick Chess, professor of English at UNC Asheville and director of the university’s Center for Jewish Studies—which celebrates its 35th anniversary in March 2017. “There’s a lot that one could learn that would be valuable to a person trying to become a fully developed mature adult and citizen of the world by studying Jewish history, culture, thought, and practice.”
Since taking the role of director in 1992, Chess has steered the CJS into becoming a valuable resource for education and insight into the Jewish experience, for both the Asheville and campus communities. Over the years the CJS has brought a multitude of writers, musicians, poets, historians, philosophers, and scholars to present their work and provide the community with a deeper understanding of the Jewish faith and culture.
“Rick [Chess] has brought these amazing programs to Asheville that would even be hard to get in New York and San Francisco or Los Angeles or Miami,” said Marty Gillen, who has created a short film documenting the history of the CJS. “The Jewish community in Asheville never would have had exposure to these kinds of ideas had they not been brought in through the Center for Jewish Studies.”
Another function of the center is to preserve the history of Jewish life in the Asheville area—a task that has recently been taken on by two local historians, Jan Schochet and Sharon Fahrer. A collection of archival material is now housed in Ramsey Library’s Special Collections, preserving the stories, photographs and memories of Jewish life in the South.
For UNC Asheville students, the CJS has provided opportunities for research, travel and community.
“When I got here there was no Jewish student organization, let alone an official Hillel, which is the international Jewish campus student organization,” Chess explained. “After a few years, we started gathering a few students who were interested and hosting them for dinners at the homes of people in the community. And now Hillel is a strong and active and thriving student organization on campus.”
The CJS funds Hillel student interns every year, whose responsibility is to develop and implement programming for Jewish students on campus, and to connect Jewish students to the community.
The CJS also supports students interested in conducting undergraduate research in Jewish studies, Chess said, which includes funding for travel. For example, one student traveled to Recife, Brazil, to conduct research on the first Jewish community in the Americas. Other students have traveled to Israel and Greece to conduct their research, and across the United States to present their work at the National Conference for Undergraduate Research.
The CJS also seeks to ensure that the UNC Asheville curriculum includes courses focused on Jewish studies. As Jewish studies is an interdisciplinary field, the courses can be found in departments across campus. Current and former courses include Hebrew language classes in the Department of Classics, “Judaism, Christianity, and Islam,” and other courses in the Religious Studies Department, and a course in Jewish humor in the 20th century in the Honors and Masters of Liberal Arts and Sciences programs. Upcoming classes include “From the Deli to the Dalai Lama, Jewish Culture in Literature, Film, Music and Art,” taught by Chess in the English Department, and a course in Jews in the American entertainment industry, taught by Professor of Mass Communication Mark West.
In the future, Chess hopes to see a permanent faculty position in Jewish studies, which will also involve directing the CJS. While Chess says he sees exciting opportunities for the center’s growth in the future—including the possible establishment of a Jewish studies minor—he’s happy to see the impact the CJS has already made in the community.
“It is really exciting and heartening to me to hear what things are actually being done in different departments, and classes, and to hear how strong and clear the support is for the continued existence of the center, and the importance of the center, especially at this particular moment in American experience and world experience,” Chess said.
The CJS will celebrate its 35 anniversary with a series of events and performances from March 23-26, including The Passion, the Beauty, the Heartbreak: Israel through Poetry and Music, by Israeli writer and recording artist Danny Maseng, a screening of Gillen’s short film documenting the history of the CJS, and the 2017 Phyllis Freed Sollod Memorial Lecture, presented by Chess. For all the details, read the press release.