Honoring Retiring Director Kessler and Celebrating 50 Years of Jewish Studies

On the evening of May 16, Kent State University celebrated and honored the career of Senior Lecturer Chaya Kessler, the retiring director of Kent State’s Jewish Studies Program (JSP), with a special event held at the Kent State University Hotel and Conference Center. With a theme of “Getting to Now – Now More Than Ever,” over 150 of Kessler’s friends, colleagues and community members showed their support in helping to kick off the program's 50th anniversary year.

"Chaya has shown a deep commitment and invested a tremendous amount of herself into the program since she started teaching at Kent,” Mandy Munro-Stasiuk, Ph.D., dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, who gave the welcoming remarks, said. “She has made remarkable contributions to the educational mission of the Jewish Studies program, and to Jewish life and culture in Northeast Ohio.”

Following a reception, silent auction and dinner, the event’s emcee, Kristin Stasiowski, Ph.D., assistant dean, International Programs & Education Abroad in the College of Arts and Sciences, invited a series of speakers to the podium including friend of the program Jim Pazol, J.D., Alumnus Josh Kogan, and Julie Mazzei, Ph.D., director of the School of Multidisciplinary Social Sciences & Humanities. Through a video, many current students, alumni, colleagues and friends reflected on their experiences highlighting the transformative impact of the program and Kessler's mentorship. The evening concluded with closing remarks from Kessler. The event helped to raise over $60,000 for the Jewish Studies Program endowment. The College of Arts and Sciences wishes to thank The David & Inez Myers Foundation for underwriting the event.

Getting to Now—Now More than Ever  

About Chaya Kessler
Born in Russia and raised in Israel, Kessler served as a sergeant in the Israeli Army Intelligence Unit before teaching High School in her hometown. Following her army service, she earned a bachelor's degree from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in English Literature and Education. While raising a family, she resumed her studies and completed her master’s in history with honors from Youngstown State University. She was the 2004 recipient of the B'nai B'rith graduate award from the history department. She is a member of Phi Alpha Theta and Phi Kappa Phi honor societies.

Kessler joined Kent State as an adjunct instructor in 2009 and has taught a variety of courses in Hebrew and Yiddish languages and Jewish history and culture to hundreds of students many of whom have joined her on study abroad trips to Israel and Poland or her many trips to museums in Washington D.C. and Cleveland. The philosophical question that she has woven into almost all aspects of her work of fostering dialogue and understanding in an increasingly polarized world was: ‘What does it mean to be Jewish in the modern world?’

She has served as the JSP Director since 2010. A few of her many accomplishments as director include hosting the Midwest Jewish Studies Association Conference, collaboration with Youngstown State University Center for Judaic and Holocaust Studies, and the creation of the annual program that brings a Holocaust survivor to speak to students at Kent Roosevelt High School. Some of the many remarkable Jewish speakers she has brought to campus include famous authors Elie Wiesel (Night) and Art Spiegelman (Maus), as well as African American/Jewish Chef Michael Twitty and Adolfo Roitman, the curator of Shrine of the Book (Dead Sea Scrolls) in Israel. Other notable speakers included Eva Schloss (Anne Frank’s stepsister), Photographer Frederick Brenner and Dr. Deborah Lipstadt who leads a U.S. special envoy for monitoring and combating antisemitism.

Kessler is a member of the Association of Jewish Studies, Midwest Association of Jewish Studies, and the Northeast Ohio Jewish Studies Network. She also serves on the Judaic and Holocaust Studies Committee at Youngstown State University and the Holocaust Commemoration Committee of the Youngstown Area Jewish Federation. In her free time, she enjoys traveling, photography, hiking, reading and playing with her grandchildren.

In 2020, Kessler received the Exemplary Holocaust Educator award from the group SSI, (Students Supporting Israel). This award recognized her outstanding commitment to teaching future generations in all areas of Judaism, including the Holocaust. She was nominated by Sophia Witt, a graduate of the Jewish Studies Program.

“The trip I took to Poland changed my life forever and reminded me of why we say ‘never forget’,” Witt said. “Chaya played an essential role in my advocacy for the Jewish State, and inspired myself, as well as hundreds of others at Kent State University.”

50th Anniversary of the Jewish Studies Program
The Jewish Studies Program was founded in 1975 with a grant from the Jewish Services Center—Five Communities Board (Akron, Canton, Cleveland, Kent, and Youngstown). The program grew and eventually established a minor in Jewish Studies and several student scholarships and internships all while strengthening its ties to Israel.

A strong academic foundation was built by past directors of the JSP, including Dr. Jerome (Saul) Friedman (1975-1980), Dr. Herb Hochhauser (1980-1999), Dr. David A. Brenner (1999-2004) and Dr. Richard Steigmann-Gall (2004-2010).

“After 50 years of advancing the Jewish Studies Program at KSU, we have learned a great deal and are prepared to take our positive momentum to a new, higher level,” Kessler said. “Mazel tov! Thank you to everyone who has shown and continues to support this vitally important program – an academic and cultural jewel for all of Northeast Ohio.”

Opportunities for Students
Students minoring in Jewish Studies have access to quality course instruction, advising and mentoring in the culture, language, literature, history, philosophy and religious customs of the Jewish people from antiquity to the present. They can also engage in programming including on-campus, local and international events and travel.

Special events held throughout each semester, including lectures, films and art exhibitions, complement and enrich Jewish studies courses. Graduates have a well-developed knowledge of Jewish history and community as well as a skill set applicable in a wide array of careers.

The JSP offers scholarship opportunities for qualified students, Jewish or non-Jewish. The Samuel Melton Scholarship, a gift from the Melton Foundation of Columbus, Ohio, provides financial assistance to any student who shows academic promise and agrees to take one or more courses in Jewish Studies every semester during their undergraduate years. The Marion C. & William B. Risman Scholarship is used to encourage students who have demonstrated the capacity to achieve educational and professional goals and the initiative to seek opportunities to further their progress.

“We are grateful for the support we receive from local donors whose generosity helps our students achieve their goals and change the world,” Kessler said. “For in the pursuit of knowledge and understanding lies the true essence of Jewish identity—a legacy worth preserving for generations to come.”

The Future of the Jewish Studies Program
Kessler explained that shifting demographics and changing priorities have reshaped the landscape, leaving the program at a crossroads. She passionately articulates the urgency of sustaining this vital institution, emphasizing the importance of unified support and asking stakeholders to transcend parochial interests and rally around a shared vision. While logistical hurdles, financial constraints and declining enrollment exacerbated by the pandemic threaten the program, Chaya remains optimistic for renewed support for Jewish Studies at Kent State.

Support the Jewish Studies Program Endowment
To make a donation to the Jewish Studies Program at Kent State University visit: https://flashes.givetokent.org/give/483657/#!/donation/checkout?designation=1835600

# # #

To read the announcement of this event, visit: https://www.kent.edu/cas/news/mazel-tov-kent-state-honor-retiring-jewish-studies-director-program-reaches-half-century


POSTED: Friday, May 24, 2024 10:07 AM
Updated: Friday, May 24, 2024 11:13 AM
Jim Maxwell