The Serling Institute for Jewish Studies and Modern Israel Statement of Solidarity with the Black Justice Movement

The faculty of the Serling Institute for Jewish Studies and Modern Israel at Michigan State University voices solidarity with the movement that has erupted in direct response to the recent police murders of Black people, including those of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Tony McDade. Their murders are just the most recent manifestation of 400 years of anti-Black violence in this country, from slavery to Jim Crow to mass incarceration.

As scholars of Jewish studies, we have many inter-connecting responsibilities to stand against such discrimination and violence. Systems of white supremacy in America have perpetuated inequalities for Black people throughout our society – inequalities that have only become more starkly evident in the unequal impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on Black communities, and in the documentation of these recent instances of ongoing violence against Black people at the hands of the state. We must come together as scholars in higher education to create classrooms, campuses, and scholarship that are not only inclusive of all communities, but actively combat anti-Black racism.

Our connection to Jewish studies and the Jewish community mandates that we combat such racism outside the Jewish community and within it. We must particularly center Black Jewish voices at this time, and the racism of some Jews against Jews of other origins.  We must also consider the ways that American racism has allowed many Jews to benefit from white privilege. 

Doing so affirms a continuity in American Jewish community support for the ideal of equal rights for all and for firm opposition to discrimination in access to voting, housing, jobs, education, public accommodations, and public transport.

Finally, as scholars of Jewish history, we are attuned to the dangerous consequences of states using militarized law enforcement to abuse any minority population. It is our responsibility to speak out against these injustices, and act in ways that combat anti-Black racism and violence wherever it occurs. As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote, “in a free society, some are guilty, all are responsible.”

These responsibilities require us not to just speak, but to act. In order to actively support our Black brothers and sisters and combat anti-Black racism, we faculty in Jewish Studies at Michigan State University commit to do the following:

 Listen with empathy to Black members of our communities, as they tell us of their experiences, and what they need from us in order to support them.

 Redouble our efforts to collaborate with other programs and units on campus in ways that enhance diversity, equity, and inclusion on campus.

 Focus this year’s programming (and incorporate an ongoing dedication to this type of programming) to the historic and current relationship between the Jewish community more broadly, and other non-Jewish minority communities, especially Black Americans and other non-Jewish communities of color. This will include histories of cooperation and collaboration, as well as histories of tension and conflict. In addition, we will endeavor to highlight diversity within the Jewish world – particularly on the experiences of Black Jews – including the historic and oftentimes difficult relationship between these Jewish communities.

Ken Waltzer Recipient of MSU Faculty Emeriti Association “Outstanding Contributions by an Individual Award”

The Serling Institute for Jewish Studies and Modern Israel is thrilled to share the great news that Professor Kenneth (Ken) Waltzer has been selected as a recipient of the MSU Faculty Emeriti Association “Outstanding Contributions by an Individual Award” for 2019-2020 in recognition of his extensive contributions to the Serling Institute for Jewish Studies and Modern Israel, the College of Arts and Letters, James Madison College, and MSU as a whole.

Professor Waltzer retired in July 2014 after a distinguished 43-year career of teaching, research and institution-building in James Madison College of MSU. He taught history in James Madison College for 43 years, was Acting Dean of JMC from 1990-1992, and also served as Director of the Center for Integrative Studies in the Arts and Humanities from 1997-2005. Professor Waltzer helped found the Jewish Studies Program in 1992, and served as Director for the Program from 2004-2014.  These remarkable contributions during his tenure at MSU have been followed by his robust contributions after retirement:  he continues to be an active and invaluable member of the intellectual community of the Serling Institute, promoting the research of colleagues and students while carrying on an active research agenda of his own centering on Holocaust Studies as well as contemporary antisemitism. He has been invaluable to MSU in promoting diversity and inclusion through his work helping the MSU community deal with rising antisemitism, Islamaphobia and white supremacy. 


Dr. Waltzer also made sure that he would continue to impact MSU after retirement by soliciting contributions from faculty, students, and Board members upon his retirement, and dedicating those contributions to support faculty research and recognize teaching excellence. From this, two endowments were made in his name. The Waltzer Faculty Development Endowment in the Serling Institute has supported faculty research since his retirement. The Waltzer Teaching Award at James Madison College recognizes faculty who have exemplified excellence in teaching.




Benjamin Francis Recipient of Serling Institute Student Achievement Award

We enthusiastically congratulate Benjamin Francis for being the recipient of our Serling Institute for Jewish Studies and Modern Israel Student Achievement Award for 2020. He is working on a dual major –Political Theory and Constitutional Democracy at James Madison College, as well as Finance at the Broad College of Business — even as he minors in Jewish Studies. Although only a junior, he has already completed the minor with 28 credits of JS content courses, and plans to have 31 such credits after next Fall. Benjamin has taken advantage of many of the curricular, study abroad, internship, and co-curricular opportunities offered by the Institute.

Benjamin is especially passionate about helping Israel to move to become a more equal society living in peace with its neighbors, as well as the culture of entrepreneurship. Benjamin spent the last two summers in Israel.  In 2018 he took the Serling Institute summer study abroad program, taking 8 credits of classes, including a class on the history of modern Israel, as well as a course on immigration and diversity in Israel. The courses involved field trips to immigration centers, non-governmental organizations, and research institutes. Benjamin conducted his own interviews with Israelis for an original research project (he subsequently presented the results of his field work on “Minorities Within the Education System of Israel” at the Serling Institute Undergraduate Conference).  Benjamin then returned the following summer to participate in an Hebrew Ulpan and to intern at Bar-Ilan University’s Faculty of Law Disability Rights Clinic.  As an intern he did research in two main areas:  he did a comparative examination of different countries’ laws pertaining to rights for parents of children with disabilities; he also research laws on sub-minimum wages for persons with disabilities.  He then returned for a third time to take the MSU study broad program based on entrepreneurship in Israel this past spring break (2020). He received multiple scholarships (including Ed Levy Study Abroad Scholarship and Hersh Scholarship for Student Internships in Israel) through the Serling Institute to support all three trips to Israel.  Benjamin has also taken two years of Hebrew at MSU and was able to practice some of his Hebrew while in Israel.

Benjamin’s knowledge of Israel has not only been enhanced by his extensive study abroad and internship experience in Israel and his research assistance to Yael Aronoff, but also through his work at the Serling Institute. The “Israel at 70: Complexity, Challenge, and Creativity” conference in September 2018 brought together 40 prominent scholars from Israel and throughout the United States, including MSU’s own experts, to discuss transformations in Israeli culture, society, politics and innovation. Benjamin was invaluable in helping with the conference by welcoming and assisting participants and recording many of the lectures (and listening to and learning from these experts). He listened to a panel by top academics and practitioners on lessons to be learned from Israel’s attempts at negotiating peace with the Palestinian Authority. Benjamin also assisted with our 13th annual Israeli Film Festival last year, helping to advertise the festival, and watching all the movies, joining discussions after the movies, and interacting with directors. He attends many of our lectures and films throughout the year.

Benjamin participated in the Accelerating Michigan-Israel Business Innovations conference at Michigan State University last November. The one-day event brought together entrepreneurs, business, government and education leaders from Israel and Michigan to build innovation and economic development opportunities for both.  Benjamin wrote an article about this conference, co-sponsored by the Serling Institute, that was published by the Detroit Jewish News on February 20, 2020.