Sustaining Jewish history scholarship: Feinstein Center legacy continues

With the inception of the Brown Family Research Award, Temple’s Feinstein Center for American Jewish History propels a three-decade tradition.

Temple's Feinstein Center for American Jewish History announces the Brown Family Research Award, endowed by co-founder Ed Brown. | FERNANDO GAXIOLA / THE TEMPLE NEWS

Since 1994, Temple’s Feinstein Center for American Jewish History has provided summer fellowship awards of up to $4,000 to dozens of students studying American Judaism, aiming to uplift predoctoral and postdoctoral scholars in the early stages of their careers. 

Throughout the past 30 years almost every important scholar in American Jewish history has won the award at one point in their career, said Bryant Simon, a Laura H. Carnell history professor.

“There’s almost nobody in the field who hasn’t been touched by it,” Simon said.

The center established the Brown Family Research Award this past January, endowed by Ed Brown, a longtime supporter and co-founder of the Feinstein Center. The Brown Family Research Award, named after Brown’s immediate family, including his aunt and uncle, will support the continuation of the summer fellowship award.

“For years, [the Feinstein Center has] given a summer fellowship to give funding to students not just at Temple, but mainly graduate students and people who’ve just gotten their PhD to support their research into American Jewish history,” said Lila Corwin Berman, director of the Feinstein Center and a Murray Friedman professor of American Jewish history. “This has been a really important signature program of the Feinstein Center.”

When considering applicants for the fellowship award, Feinstein’s Advisory Committee, composed of Philadelphia community members aligned with its scholarly mission, collaborates with staff to connect academic scholarship with public dialogues on American Jewish history and experiences.

The committee processes applications together and chooses recipients for the award largely based on the scholar’s ability to translate and communicate their work to a larger audience. 

Past recipients have gone on to study internationally, write dissertations and novels and become professors themselves. The award can be used for travel expenses to visit archives, living expenses for people in research and to purchase materials and equipment for projects. 

“[Grants] allow people to go to archives, to learn language, to, in some cases, buy some research materials that can be really critical to their dissertation and turning their dissertations into books,” Simon said. 

In the past, the award has supported research into Sephardic Jewish communities, with remote origins to Spain and Portugal, who immigrated to the U.S. from Turkey, Greece, and the Balkans from 1880 through the 1920s. This research was conducted by Aviva Ben-Ur, now on faculty at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. 

Ben-Ur published the book, Sephardic Jews in America: A Diasporic History, in 2012 after receiving the fellowship. 

The award also supported Shana Bernstein, a historian at Northwestern University, who wrote a dissertation followed by a book about interracial civil rights coalitions in mid-twentieth-century Los Angeles in which many Jewish and non-Jewish people participated. 

“​​This grant really allows [the summer fellowship] to exist, for many, many years into the future, that’s incredibly important,” Berman said. “I think it’s a nice way of showcasing the strength and the significance of the Feinstein Center at Temple, that this is a place that supports broad scholarship; some of the best and most recognized scholars have had this award.”

The Feinstein Center’s fellowship award has helped various scholars with early research that has been foundational for their professional lives. Brown’s endowment will now allow young American Jewish scholars to advance their careers for years to come.

“These days, money to support research in the humanities in the social sciences, but especially in the humanities, is quite rare and hard to come by,” said Laura Levitt, a religion, gender and Jewish studies professor. “So these awards are just so important because they make the difference between a young scholar being able to go to an archive in a particular place to be able to access materials that they may have to pay for, and that really can make a difference in their in their dissertations and some of their first publications.”

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