Mazel Tov! -- Kent State to Honor Retiring Jewish Studies Director as Program Reaches Half Century Mark

What does it mean to be Jewish in the modern world? This is the philosophical question that Senior Lecturer Chaya Kessler, the esteemed retiring director of Kent State University’s Jewish Studies Program (JSP), has woven into almost all aspects of her work of fostering dialogue and understanding in an increasingly polarized world.

On the evening of May 16, Kent State University will celebrate and honor the career of Kessler, with a special event held at the Kent State University Hotel and Convention Center. With a theme of “Getting to Now – Now More Than Ever,” friends, colleagues and community members are all invited to celebrate her invaluable contributions while kicking off the program's 50th anniversary year. To register for this event, visit:

"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, said. “She has made remarkable contributions to the educational mission of the Jewish Studies program, and to Jewish life and culture in Northeast Ohio.” 

About Chaya Kessler

Chaya Kessler
Chaya Kessler (photo by David Labelle)

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.

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 combatting antisemitism.

Chaya Kessler (left) with Adolfo Roitman (right) at Kent State University Student Center
Chaya Kessler (left) with Adolfo Roitman (right) at Kent State University Student Center

Kessler is a member of the Association of Jewish Studies, Mid-West 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. 

Jewish Studies trip

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 JSP
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 that the event in May will rally a renewed support for Jewish Studies at Kent State.

Students Share Their Memories
Over the years, many students have shared their gratitude, inspiration, and profound appreciation for the enduring legacy of Jewish education and heritage.

“Kent State University is a recipe made up of exceptional and unique ingredients,” Joshua Kogan said. “Undeniably, when it comes to the sweetest of ingredients, we find the Jewish Studies Program. Personally, my experience at Kent State was honeyed and enriched thanks to the JSP’s stimulating classes, thought-provoking discussions, motivating excursions and inspiring speakers. The Program’s own heart, Chaya Kessler, has created a center of learning that is warm, deep, and full of flavor. The JSP certainly provides students with a distinctive and delectable college experience, and leaves alumni with a sweet and satisfying feeling of realization.”

Jewish studies Study Abroad trip

“All of my favorite memories from my time in Kent come from Jewish Studies programs,” Ariel Kogan Zajdman, who’s now in medical school, wrote in a message to Kessler. “The passion you show towards the well-being of your students is admirable and does not go unnoticed. Thank you for the opportunities to go and visit Washington D.C., to visit Poland, for the incredible (Risman) scholarship and for all the amazing people you introduced me to.”

"Without Professor Kessler I truthfully would have given up my degree during these unprecedented times,” Ivy Schoch said. “She has made education enjoyable, accessible and something to look forward to. I hope to one day be a professor and provide the same level of passion, genuine interest and empathy for my students as Chaya has. I feel incredibly lucky to have found the Jewish Studies program here at Kent and owe many of my achievements to the wonderful director who has helped me through it.”

William Martzakis was a neuroscience major who met Kessler in 2020 after hearing about the Jewish Studies Program. He felt there was more for him to explore in the rest of his time at Kent and was on a journey to find his purpose. Kessler encouraged him to get out of his comfort zone and take the Introduction to Jewish Studies class that she taught. In a thank-you letter to Kessler after graduating, he reflected on her positive influence on him and noted her love of literature, poetry, music, history, the Bible, teaching, passion for justice and peace and mentorship which inspired him to minor in Jewish Studies.

“Through your vast range of knowledge on so many topics, your love of your people’s history and diverse cultural experiences, and your commitment to telling your story and the stories of your people, you have increased my thirst for knowledge, opened my eyes in admiration and respect for your people, helped me cultivate my own relationship with God and our “elder brothers and sisters in the faith”, and introduced me to scholarly topics, language skills, and international trips that I never imagined I would engage in,” Martzakis said.

Support the Jewish Studies Program Endowment
To make a donation to the Jewish Studies Program at Kent State University visit:!/donation/checkout?designation=1835600

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POSTED: Friday, March 22, 2024 03:00 PM
Updated: Tuesday, April 2, 2024 12:17 PM
Jim Maxwell