UCR Magazine The Magazine of UC Riverside

Fall 2015

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Widening the Conversation About Judaism

Newly endowed chair Michael Alexander is committed to linking UCR to a transnational Jewish community

Lilledeshan Bose

As a student, Michael S. Alexander dutifully followed his father’s advice to take accounting, but he found his passion in the study of Judaism, modern Jewish history and American religion. Alexander, an associate professor in the Department of Religious Studies, became the first recipient of UCR’s Maimonides Chair in Jewish Studies in June. The endowment was a Riverside community effort to not only highlight Jewish history, culture and traditions, but address pressing topics in the world today, said former UCR Foundation Chair Pam Rubin, one of a committed group of donors to the chair.

Alexander, who holds a Ph.D. in religious studies from Yale University and a B.A. in Oriental studies from the University of Pennsylvania, received a National Jewish Book Award for his first book, “Jazz Age Jews” (Princeton University Press, 2001).
Currently at work on a new book, “Paths of Joy: Adventures in Religion and Therapy,” Alexander talks to UCR Magazine about campus life and what he wants to leave as his legacy.

How did you end up studying Judaism as a career?

The only requirement my father had for my college education was to take accounting ­— which I took and enjoyed — but I didn’t have a real aptitude for it. After that, I looked through the catalog for interesting classes and found one about the book of Genesis. That really knocked me out. One class followed another, and before I knew it I was the teacher.

So there wasn’t a childhood epiphany that led you to the study of Judaism?

Not really. The classroom to me is just an extension of the sandbox. It’s fun to learn. And it’s edifying, too; it doesn’t feel empty once the learning is done.

Was there a specific life experience that shaped your life as a professor?

It’s definitely been my interaction with books and Scriptures. From a very early age I started to read these as though the author was trying to say something directly to me. Each thing I read is like a bottle swept up on shore from hundreds or even thousands of years ago, with a message so important that somehow it has made its way through time and space just to get to me.

How will the Maimonides Chair in Jewish Studies help your scholarship?

In a very concrete sense, the purpose of a university is simply to create opportunities for diverse and knowledgeable people to get to know one another. In that regard, the establishment of this chair is a really great thing. It means that UCR has made a long-term commitment to include Jewry and Judaism as part of the conversation.

My own academic expertise has been American Jewry, and the roads between Los Angeles and Las Vegas have held an awful lot of that story, including right here in the Inland Empire and desert area. I’m anxious to get into the community to learn more about that history, and also to invite those folks onto our campus for them to see firsthand in our students what the future of California looks like.

 “Every time I walk into the classroom I imagine that the next Ralph Bunche might be seated out there. He won the Nobel Peace Prize for mediating the 1949 Armistice between Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, and Israel.” 

I want to help link our campus with the community, and vice versa, so that the learning and conversations can move in both directions. I hope to offer public lectures and student research scholarships, do oral histories … anything to get the conversations going. And insofar as Jewry is transnational, I intend to widen the conversation considerably beyond our own immediate region by bringing international scholars here and sending our students out into the world.

What do you like best about working at UCR?

I have a very high regard for the students. Every year my Holocaust class and my class on the State of Israel fill up completely. These don’t fulfill any kind of requirement; the students are simply interested. I have some students with family connections to these topics but most are just there to learn something completely new to them.

Every time I walk into the classroom I imagine that the next Ralph Bunche might be seated out there. He was a UCLA graduate who won the Nobel Peace Prize for mediating the 1949 Armistice between Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan, Syria and Israel. He was the first person of color to be awarded the prize. So when I see the students file in on the first day of class, I think maybe the next Ralph Bunche is out there.

What do you hope to leave as your legacy in your lifetime?

To have helped along the next Ralph Bunche, of course!

About the Chair

Moses Maimonides, b. 1135, was a rabbi, scholar, philosopher, astronomer and physician in Spain and Egypt. Donors to the chair included Mark and Pam Rubin, Robert and Cheryl Fey, Andrea and Moshe Silagi, The Jewish Federation of the Desert and the Saul Brandman Foundation.

What is an Endowed Chair and Why is it Important?

An endowed chair is one of the most important gifts to higher education; it’s an honor that fosters academic excellence and recognizes superior faculty. Established with sizeable donor gifts to an academic area, the endowed chair provides invaluable financial support above and beyond the salary that the professor uses in research, teaching or service activities.