Support for Jewish studies at McGill
By Donna MacMullin
The future of Canada's only Jewish studies department has just been secured after McGill University received two $1-million gifts this week.
"It is a dramatic gesture of confidence for us and for the city," said Gershon Hundert, a professor and soon-to-be director of the department. "These philanthropists could have given their money anywhere, but the fact they put trust in this department is a tremendous morale builder."
Like many smaller programs at Canadian universities, the Jewish studies department at McGill was suffering from funding cutbacks, causing a reduction in full-time staff and possible loss of some courses.
Now professors hope to rebuild and strengthen the foundation upon which the department was built, particularly by restoring the primacy of the Yiddish literature and language component, said Eugene Orenstein, chair of the department.
Orenstein said when the program started to feel the crunch of budget cuts, efforts were made to strengthen links with the Montreal Jewish Community to find support.
The donations came from the Montreal families of Leonor and Alvin Segaal and the late Jack Cummings. Orenstein said he has had ties with the Cummings family for years and together they helped to build a centre to memorialize the Holocaust in Montreal.
The Jewish studies department has been at McGill for 30 years as part of the faculty of arts. However, dean of arts Carman Miller said courses involving Jewish studies have existed since 1848. "It is part of McGill's intellectual heritage, so it only seems appropriate to renew it."
Currently there are students specializing in the Jewish studies and many undergraduates taking Jewish courses just out of interest, Orenstein said. "The graduate program encompasses Jewish biblical interpretation and East European Jewish studies."
At Western, Elana Lavine, president of the Jewish Students' Union, said the prospect of providing courses in Jewish studies here is something that has been looked into but there has been no full-scale effort to date. "It has taken time for the resources to reflect what we have in terms of the diversity of students."
However, there is a centre for Holocaust studies, headed by professor Alain Goldschlager, which Lavine said serves as a resource for research.