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REFLECTIONS FROM THE PAST: Rabbi Paul Levenson, Hillel Director 1983-1990

I came to Northeastern University as Hillel director in 1983, 32 years ago. While I had been primarily a congregational rabbi for 25 years, I also had spent the ten previous years as a Jewish Studies professor at Rockhurst College in Kansas City, Mo., a sister Jesuit College of Holy Cross and Boston College. Rockhurst’s Jewish Studies curriculum consisted of two semester-long courses: “The First 2,000 Years of Jewish Life,” teaching the Jewish bible, plus rabbinic and history texts; and “The 2,000 Years since Year 0,” based on The Judaic Tradition, a then-new text by Brandeis Professor Nahum Glatzer. I also taught a course on The Jewish Jesus,” comparing Jesus’ Jewish practices with normative Jewish customs of the time.

As soon as I became acclimated to being the Northeastern Hillel director, I asked Ronald McAllister, the associate dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, to help create a Jewish Studies minor at Northeastern. Not having a strong Jewish presence in a Boston university was in its own way a “shanda,” a shame, since all the other schools of higher learning in the area had full departments of Jewish Studies or, at the very least, several courses in academic Jewish subjects. I recall just a few Jewish courses being taught at NU in the early 1980s, including History Professor Gerald Herman’s “The Holocaust,” and History Professor Philip Backstrom’s course on Hitler’s Germany, which also might be included for obvious reasons.

McAllister worked with Professor Robert Lowndes to create the administrative machinery needed to establish a Jewish Studies minor. I taught my first Northeastern Jewish Studies course the next year, including a new one for me, “Jewish Short StoriesThe class read the stories to get a sense of what Jewish life was like in other times and places, not as much for their literary qualities. The writers captured the intense Jewish life of those eras. In subsequent semesters, I taught The Pentateuch/Five Books of Moses and other Biblical readings along with extensive rabbinic commentaries. The students learned about Jewish life in the land of the Bible so they could grasp the profound changes in Jewish life and literature that had taken place since. Of course, The Jews and the Rebirth of the Land of Israelwas central to the learning offered students. Then, as now, there were challenges to the right of the modern nation of Israel to exist that needed to be countered both in class and on the campus generally. I attended certain classes on the Middle East at the request of students.

We needed to expand our offerings in modern Jewish history as well as religion. The University had not budgeted for them. Happily, a superstar Northeastern professor stepped forward to help us out with a highly beneficent gift. Professor Bill Giessen of Northeastern’s Barnett Institute of Chemical Analysis and Material Science was my own age and had grown up in Nazi-era Germany. During WWII, while I was marching around Temple Israel of Lawrence, Long Island’s social hall in my Boy Scout uniform, Bill was learning harsher lessons in Germany. After the war, he came to the United States to complete his graduate studies in chemistry at MIT and joined the Northeastern faculty. Upon meeting the Morton family, Jews who had fled Germany before the war, Bill vowed to do what he could personally to atone for the totally inexcusable deeds of the Nazi government of his youth. His gift to Northeastern to support Jewish Studies and Holocaust remembrance was part of that atonement.

We were able to hire adjunct professors to offer more courses. They were delighted to get in on the ground floor of this historic undertaking even at the modest pay available. I remember that Moshe Waldoks and Barry Mesch of Hebrew College answered the call. Regular faculty members, too, including Professors McAllister, Lowndes, Stephen Nathanson, and Debra Kaufman, also became excited about the prospects. Music Professor Joshua Jacobson, leader of the world-famous Zamir Chorale of Boston, James Ross of the School of Journalism, and Kaufman went on to chair the Jewish Studies program.

And what became of me? National Hillel changed its mission from assuring that a Jewish teaching presence was on college campuses to becoming a strongly focused student social organization. Many of the rabbis who had been successful Hillel directors for years were dismissed in favor of Jewish social workers. Thus ended my tenure as Hillel director at Northeastern in 1990. I also could no longer teach Jewish Studies courses here, because although I had an M.A. in Jewish Studies and had taken many academic courses in rabbinical school, I didn’t have a Ph.D. in Jewish Studies. The university thus determined that I didn’t have the necessary Jewish education to teach at the university level, in spite of my having done exactly that with excellence for 14 years. All’s well that ends well, though. Upon leaving, two NU Hillel Board members asked me to be their home rabbi at Temple Chayai Shalom in Easton, MA. I am now their Rabbi Emeritus.

I am proud of the legacy I left at Northeastern during my seven years there.

Rabbi Paul H. Levenson ( is now retired from active rabbinic life and lives in Newton, Mass.

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Haverim Newsletter Spring 2015