Jewish studies at ASU offers global understanding and intellectual growth to students

February 17, 2020

Like other thinkers throughout history, American astronomer and astrophysicist Carl Sagan said in order to understand the present, one must know the past. At Arizona State University, Jewish studies strives to put that idea into practice, both in the classroom and in the greater Phoenix community.

“At ASU, students may take a course in history but never discuss its relevant Jewish aspect,” said program director and Regents Professor Hava Tirosh-Samuelson. “In truth, Jewish history is global history. There is simply no way to talk about any history — be it American history, European history, art history or world history — without mentioning the Jewish experience.” woman in office Hava Tirosh-Samuelson took the helm of the Jewish studies program in 2008 and co-founded the Center for Jewish Studies in 2009. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now Download Full Image

Established in what is today The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, Jewish studies at ASU began in 1978 as a certificate in the religious studies program. Founded by Associate Professor Joel Gereboff, the certificate introduced students to Judaism, its sacred texts and religious rituals. In 2009, the program added an interdisciplinary Bachelor of Arts degree that covers the entire Jewish civilization from antiquity to the present.  

Faculty associated with the Jewish studies program hold academic appointments in various units at ASU, including the School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies, the School of International Languages and Cultures, Department of English, School of Politics and Global Studies, the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts, and the College of Integrative Sciences and Arts. In this regard, Tirosh-Samuelson said, the program manifests ASU’s commitment to interdisciplinarity. 

The program brings the same approach to the Phoenix community thanks to a range of public-facing events offered by the Center for Jewish Studies.

Tirosh-Samuelson, who also directs the center, said she has long been committed to integrating her academic scholarship and her commitment to public outreach. When she became director of the Jewish studies program in 2008, she found the perfect opportunity to implement her vision.

“Scholars of Jewish studies have debated whether the Jewish scholar has an obligation to the Jewish community. I have long maintained that scholars are part of the community at large, and the ideal of social embeddedness has always been an important part of my work,” said Tirosh-Samuelson, also an Irving and Miriam Lowe Professor of Modern Judaism in the School of Historical, Philosophical, Religious Studies. “My approach to public humanities coheres well with President Crow’s direction for ASU, so Jewish studies carries out the broader vision and mission of ASU.” 

Public humanities

Under Tirosh-Samuelson’s direction, the Center for Jewish Studies has built a robust lineup of community-focused events since its founding in 2009. Today, programming includes lectures, panel discussions, exhibitions and conferences addressing everything from culture and politics to science and medicine, all through the lens of the Jewish experience.

Jeffrey Cohen, dean of the humanities at The College, said the classroom-to-community approach fostered by the center could serve as a model for the development of the humanities at large. 

“The future of the humanities is to become increasingly public-facing and engage our communities on the essential questions of our time,” Cohen said. “One of the strengths of Jewish studies is that it has always had a dual identity in that it’s both a rigorous academic program and a community asset that does a lot of outward-facing education. It is really a model of how a humanities program can be both intellectually rigorous and socially engaged.”

Cohen said the center and academic program is also an opportunity to ensure local Jewish history is kept alive.

“Phoenix is a city with a rich Jewish history people don’t always know about,” he said. “We have a huge Jewish community here — we have Holocaust survivors and we have Jewish communities who have settled here from around the world. So I think there’s a lot of good work to be done when it comes to explaining Judaism itself to non-Jews.”

One example of that idea in action is a photo exhibit unveiled last month at the Arizona Jewish Historical Society titled, “Jewish Treasures of the Caribbean.” The exhibit is the result of a collaboration between Stanley Mirvis, an assistant professor of history and the Harold and Jean Grossman Chair in Jewish Studies who specializes in the Sephardic diaspora, and photographer Wyatt Gallery. Gallery’s images and Mirvis’ corresponding text explore how historic Jewish communities in the Caribbean have helped shape island nations and Jewish life in little-known diasporas. The event was just one of a handful created through partnerships with local cultural institutions, which Cohen said will continue to grow.

Interdisciplinarity in action

Though the Jewish studies program is housed in the School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies, affiliated faculty belong to other academic units across the university. To Tirosh-Samuelson, whose own work examines intersections of philosophy and mysticism, Judaism and science, and Judaism and ecology, the interdisciplinary nature of Jewish studies transcends traditional academic divisions and highlights the contribution of Jews and Judaism to many aspects of Western culture.

Seth Moller is pursuing a bachelor's degree in history and a certificate in Jewish Studies from The College.

ASU junior Seth Moller, who added a Jewish studies certificate after taking a class on Jewish history from antiquity to 1492, sees the Jewish studies program as an opportunity to rethink one’s view of the world.

“Jewish studies is an ideal program in terms of interdisciplinarity because the inquiries about Jews and Judaism belong in the humanities, the social sciences and even the natural sciences,” she said. “To be a student in Jewish studies is actually to be a student of history, religion, philosophy, art, psychology, political science and other subjects, all of which contribute to one’s intellectual and emotional growth. To study Jews and Judaism requires one to reflect on the human condition.”

That notion is what drove Seth Moller, now a junior at The College pursuing concurrent bachelor’s degrees in history and Jewish studies, to change course as a first-year student.

“I had initially decided on a linguistics major, but in my second semester I took a class focused on Jewish history from antiquity to 1492,” he said. “The course really struck me because it was history, but it was a part of history that not everyone is taught — I added a Jewish studies major that next semester.”

Moller aims to continue studying the field as a graduate student. But he said regardless of what comes next, he sees the Jewish studies program as an opportunity to rethink one’s view of the world.

“Jewish history can be presented as a series of tragedies throughout time, so for me this program has helped to bring so much nuance and detail and beauty to it,” he said. “Even if I don’t end up in academia or teaching, I'm confident that my Jewish studies major has helped me to rethink history and the way that people act in social spaces — I’d recommend a course that does that to anyone.” 

Writer, The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences


ASU Foundation appoints noteworthy alumni to its board of directors

February 17, 2020

Arizona State University alumni Lauren E. Bailey (’02) and Tony B. Sarsam (’85) have joined the board of directors of the ASU Foundation, a subsidiary of the nonprofit ASU Enterprise Partners.

“We are thrilled to have Lauren and Tony join our board,” said Gretchen Buhlig, CEO of the ASU Foundation. “Lauren is a young entrepreneur who, in a short time, has built and sustained a highly successful company, Upward Projects. She is the first person on our board to have graduated from ASU as a New American University, and we know she will bring an important new voice and perspective to her service. Download Full Image

“Tony brings a wealth of experience as a widely admired executive in the Dallas area. His roots at ASU run deep; he not only is an alumnus with a long history of service to ASU, but also is the father of current Sun Devils,” Buhlig said. “We look forward to working with Lauren and Tony to continue building and sustaining a culture of philanthropy at ASU.”

The ASU Foundation is a private nonprofit that raises private contributions on behalf of ASU students and faculty, and its research enterprise. Fueled by ASU donors, the Foundation has experienced record-breaking fundraising success year over year. With each successful fundraising year, the Foundation enables ASU to continue its ascent as a global leader in academic excellence and accessibility, interdisciplinary research and social embeddedness.

Lauren E. Bailey

The ASU Foundation board of directors establishes the policies and annual goals for the Foundation and oversees management of ASU’s endowment and investments.

As CEO and co-founder of Upward Projects, Bailey brings a record of innovation and entrepreneurship to the board. The Phoenix-based company oversees five restaurant concepts — Postino, Joyride Taco House, Federal Pizza, Windsor and Churn — and operates 12 restaurants in Arizona, Colorado and Texas.

Throughout her career, Bailey has earned accolades for her entrepreneurial skills. She has been recognized as a 2018 Phoenix Magazine “40 Under 40,” a 2014 Phoenix Business Journal “40 Under 40” and an Arizona Republic “35 Entrepreneurs 35 & Younger” in 2013.

In 2014, the Arizona Culinary Hall of Fame named her Restaurateur of the Year, and in 2015, the Phoenix Business Journal selected her as an Outstanding Women in Business honoree.

Bailey already serves on the Foundation’s Next Generation Council, which is composed of alumni of the millennial generation who share their unique perspectives on fundraising with board members. Her commitment to higher education includes serving as an advisory board member for the Colangelo College of Business at Grand Canyon University.

Sarsam has long served as an executive and leader within the food industry. Since 2018, he has held the position of CEO of Borden Dairy Company. Prior to that, he was CEO of Ready Pac Foods Inc. and an executive for Nestle and PepsiCo Inc.

Sarsam has been recognized for excellence in the course of his distinguished career. In 2019, the Dallas Business Journal named him one of the Most Admired CEOs in North Texas.

Tony Sarsam

Tony B. Sarsam

ASU roots run deep in Sarsam’s family. As a student in the 1980s, he served in the ASU Student Government and the Sun Devil Band. His wife, Judy, received a BS in accountancy from ASU in 1983.

Their daughters are currently students at ASU. Kamila is an undergraduate student studying supply chain management and computer information systems in the W. P. Carey School of Business, and Karissa is an undergraduate student studying secondary education (biological sciences) in the Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College. The Sarsams care for several other children in addition to their two daughters, one of which, Juliana Enriquez, is an undergraduate student studying health care coordination at the Edson College of Nursing and Health Innovation.

Over the years, Sarsam has maintained strong ties to ASU. He is a member of the ASU President’s Club, a group of supporters who contribute intellectual and financial resources to advance initiatives of the ASU president, as well as the Industry Engagement Catalyst in the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering.

“Both Lauren and Tony bring a unique skill set and life experiences to our board, and we’re eager to hear their perspectives and share in their knowledge,” Buhlig said. “But most of all, they bring a shared love of and belief in ASU’s mission that will help drive the university forward.”

The ASU Foundation for A New American University is a private, nonprofit organization that raises and manages private contributions to support the work of ASU. It is one of five affiliated organizations that make up ASU Enterprise Partners, an innovative organizational model designed to generate resources to meet the needs of ASU. 

Written by Melissa Bordow