Patty Gerstenblith, Ph.D., J.D., Presents 2017 HUC-JIR/Cincinnati Graduation Address

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Patty Gerstenblith, Ph.D., J.D., Distinguished Research Professor of Law at DePaul University, presented the address at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion's Cincinnati Graduation on May 21, 2017. Read her remarks:

President Panken, Dean Cohen, Rabbi Kanter, Dr. Sarason, Members of the Board of Governors and Overseers, and Faculty of the Hebrew Union College. I want to thank you for bestowing upon me this honorary degree. 

It is a great pleasure for me to be back at HUC and, even more so, to be speaking today to the graduating students, recipients of the Master of Philosophy, the M.A. and the M.A.H.L. degrees, their families and friends. While receiving your degrees and completing this chapter in your education are notable achievements, we should never forget the sacrifices and support of family and friends that have made your accomplishments possible. I also wish to congratulate Professor Barry Kogan on receiving the D.H.L. degree as well.

I spent three years here at HUC in Cincinnati while my husband, Rabbi Sam Gordon, was completing his rabbinic studies and I am glad to have him here with me today, as well as our daughter, Shira Gordon, to share in the honor that HUC has given me. HUC played an important role in our lives as I met my husband when he was a first-year rabbinical student in Jerusalem and I was conducting the research for my Ph.D. dissertation. But I am particularly gratified to be here because not only was I at that time a student spouse, but I taught the subjects of Biblical and Near Eastern Archaeology in the graduate school—the first (and only) teaching job I have held in the field of archaeology. 

As I look around the Scheuer Chapel where we are sitting today, I am thankful also to Dick Scheuer, who gave so graciously of his time and resources not only to HUC but also to the field of Biblical and Near Eastern archaeology, particularly through his support of the Albright Institute of Archaeological Research in Jerusalem. He was an active and dedicated member of the Albright’s Board of Trustees, and I always valued his advice when I served as the Board’s president. 

I would like to recall Lowell McCoy, who left us only recently. In my husband’s day at HUC, Dr. McCoy was the rabbi’s (or rabbinical student’s) rabbi. He was the person to whom all could turn for advice, counsel and encouragement. 

But, first and foremost, I think of the lessons I learned from a very influential and also greatly cherished and beloved member of the HUC faculty and family, and I would like to try to convey some of those lessons to the graduating students. Rabbi and Professor Jacob Rader Marcus, known to many of you as the founder of the field of American Jewish History and for whom the American Jewish Archives, housed here at the Cincinnati campus, is named, was my husband’s uncle-by-marriage. He had come to Cincinnati at the age of 15 in 1911, and, but for his military service during the First World War and time in Germany to complete his Ph.D., he remained here at the College until his death at close to the age of 100 in 1995.

While no longer young in age even in the late 1970s, Dr. Marcus was incredibly young in spirit and one of the most forward-thinking people I have ever met. In fact, although he was a member of a different generation, he would still be considered forward-thinking today, especially in terms of professional opportunities for women. To bring you back to the time of the 1970s, HUC had only just begun ordaining women rabbis a few years before in 1972, and, at that time, Hebrew Union College had no women members of its faculty at any of its campuses. 

As time for my husband’s ordination grew close and we wrestled with questions of where would we both find satisfying professional opportunities in a dual-career marriage, I debated leaving the field of archaeology and attending law school—not an easy decision. 

But Dr. Marcus gave me two pieces of advice: one, is to become an expert in your field, find your niche, no matter how small, and make yourself the most qualified person; the second is to find your passion, whatever that might be. We can talk about the satisfaction that one receives from ministering to a larger congregation, having a higher salary or the larger office, or being promoted to full professor, but these are not what bring you happiness. Rather, finding your passion and having the opportunity to work in that field bring not only happiness but a deeper, more fulfilling and meaningful form of satisfaction.

Dr. Marcus did not discourage me or caution that a woman, especially a married woman, should sacrifice her career ambitions to those of her husband. Rather, he encouraged me to seek out new opportunities, including attending law school, and his words gave me the courage to do that when so many others advised me that I should be content with a parttime, largely itinerant academic career that would play second fiddle to my husband’s. 

Dr. Marcus encouraged me to find and pursue a passion, and, with his encouragement, I made the challenging choice to start over in a new career, but taking to heart his advice to become an expert, I was able to forge not only a new career but a new field—something of a niche, that of cultural heritage and, more specifically, cultural heritage law—a field that did not exist at the time and that no one could have predicted (including me) would grew into an important interdisciplinary field of academic study, spanning history, art history, anthropology, archaeology, area and cultural studies, as well as diplomacy, foreign relations, and, of course, the law.

At this point, I want to refer to another member of the HUC faculty of the 1970s: Professor Sam Sandmel who taught here until 1979. To me, he exemplified the melding or synthesis of disparate subjects—in his case, the teaching of early Christianity at a Jewish seminary. The idea of teaching Christianity at a Jewish seminary was novel at that time, but he found his niche and, in doing so, he opened the eyes of both Jewish and Christian clergy to what each could learn by studying the faith and history of the other. As such, Professor Sandmel exemplified the best of interdisciplinarity; how to synthesize what might otherwise seem to be disparate and incompatible subjects. Even with that in mind, who would have thought it possible to synthesize the subjects of law and archaeology? 

I never imagined at the time I left HUC just how fortunate I would be—I have to acknowledge that, to some extent, the world’s misfortune turned out to be my good fortune. Slowly in the 1980s and then very quickly came the collapse of the Soviet Union, the fall of the Iron Curtain, and the opening of wartime archives. These new historical sources and documentation made possible the efforts of the families of those who perished in the Holocaust to recover property that the Nazis stole and looted as part of their genocidal program. These properties include, perhaps most spectacularly, the art works and other cultural, including religious, artifacts that had belonged to Holocaust victims. These last “prisoners of war” have appeared on the international art market and in both public and private collections over the past 25 years, and efforts have mounted to enable the recoveries by surviving family members and their descendants. Those seeking to recover these art works have encountered many obstacles, including and perhaps especially here in the United States, obstacles posed by many of the major art-collecting museums. These efforts were most recently chronicled in the book and film with which some of you may be familiar, Woman in Gold, recounting the efforts of one individual, Maria Altmann, to recover the portraits of her aunt, Adele Bloch-Bauer, from the Belvedere Gallery in Vienna.

But what is the meaning of the struggle to reclaim the cultural objects looted by the Nazis, because we know it is not just about property and objects? The Nazis understood that it was not sufficient to kill all the Jews of Europe (as well as many members of other  ethnic and religious minorities, and also gays and lesbians and any one else the Nazis considered “inferior”, “degenerate” or “undesirable”). In order to truly eradicate Jews and Judaism from Europe, the Nazis also had to erase all traces of their culture so that there would be no memory of the great contributions of Jews to the art, music, philosophy, and literature of Europe. The Nazis therefore undertook a program of what we today call cultural cleansing or genocide to accompany the genocide of people. The efforts of survivors and their descendants are therefore not only about recovering property but about recovering the cultural memory of their ancestors.

Unfortunately, we have seen repeated the pattern of the Nazis in more recent history—in the breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990s, a formerly multi-ethnic and multi-religious community. During the Balkan wars, mosques and churches, rather than protected as cultural and religious heritage, became targets of intentional destruction in an effort to ensure that, at the end of the conflict, those religious populations would not wish to return to their traditional homelands. The Bridge at Mostar, designed in the mid-16th century by Suleiman the Magnificent’s architect, Mimar Sinan, stood as a symbolic and physical link between the Croatian and Bosniak communities, until it was destroyed in order to sever those ties.

We see this pattern repeated today in the Middle East conflicts: where the so-called  Islamic State (Da’esh) revels in the enslavement of Yazidi women and children and the murder of Christians and members of Muslim minority sects. Other groups, including those linked to al-Qaeda and the Assad regime, have engaged in equally brutal murders. Along with these atrocities, all these groups have engaged in destruction of cultural heritage, both for profit, to fund their terrorism and armed conflict, and to erase the memories of the diverse ethnic and religious peoples that once populated the Middle East. At the same time, we are losing millennia-old languages and traditional practices linked to cultural landscapes. 

In 2014, the Islamic State blew up the Mosque of Nebi Yunis (the prophet Jonah), which stood in the town of Mosul in northwestern Iraq, ancient Nineveh. There the prophet Jonah was sent to preach repentance and he learned tolerance and forgiveness. However, it was not enough for the Islamic State to destroy the structure, but ISIL also ground up the remnants of the stones in order to erase all trace of the shrine that had stood there for centuries—sacred to Jews, Christians and Muslims—and to ensure that it could never be rebuilt.

Yet, even amidst the destruction in the Middle East, there are many, untold stories of bravery in the efforts to save both people and their cultural heritage, similar to the stories of the righteous Gentiles during the Second World War. In Afghanistan, following the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas, the staff of the National Museum in Kabul, at great personal risk, hid the museum collections from the Taliban, who were determined to destroy all the art works in the Museum. The Museum staff were, for the most part, successful in hiding and protecting the collection. Today, across the façade of the Museum are engraved the words: “The people survive only so long as their culture survives”.

But there is another side to cultural heritage that we need to acknowledge—one that can lead to political abuses of the past for present aggrandizement and even to ultranationalism. We can see as dangers, on the one hand, terrorist groups destroying the remains of the past in order to reshape historical memory to fit their current ideology, and, on the other hand, groups, such as some in Israel, who would use the past to justify modern territorial expansion and would eliminate the cultural remains that present the counter-narrative of other peoples that have conflicting historical claims. This danger is apparent in the reshaping of the so-called “Holy Basin” around Jerusalem and, in particular, the excavations at the City of David sponsored by a private organization, Elad.

Not only are these excavations endangering the local, living Palestinian community of Silwan, but they are also obscuring the history of successive cultures that followed the Second Temple period. As the late Daniel Rossing, advisor to Jerusalem Mayor Teddy Kollek, used to say, one can understand the conflict in Jerusalem, if one realizes that each ethnic and religious community is living in a different time period—the time period in which it was transcendent.

So it is that Israel aims to restore much of the area around the Temple Mount to the time of the Second Temple or even earlier. However, this poses the danger of losing the rich cultural and multi-ethnic/multi-religious tapestry that characterized Jerusalem for so many centuries. This erasure of some elements of the past is exacerbated by changes in the names of streets and locations to remove the traditional Arabic names and replace them with modern names that purport to link to the Biblical past. This is another form of cultural erasure that affects both the intangible as well as tangible cultural heritage of a community.

I am not naive enough to think that there can ever be a truly objective recounting of the past, but it is our responsibility to preserve the past in its myriad complexity and sometimes contradictory elements. It is encouraging to note that just this past week, the Israeli Supreme Court ruled that at the site of Tel Shiloh, on the West Bank, Israeli authorities are required to present the Christian and Muslim cultural remains, representing the different historical periods of the site, along with the Jewish remains in telling the site’s narrative, and that the site must be accessible to members of all faiths. We must be vigilant about both those who would outright destroy the past to further their ideological and political advantage and those who would distort the past for the same purpose.

Why does heritage matter so much? Cultural heritage gives us a sense of identity and belonging, where we came from and what we can leave to future generations. Intertwined in our lives are the pillars of memory and history: Judaism teaches the importance of recounting and explaining the past. The tangible and intangible heritage helps us to do that by embodying meaning, faith and morality. It is therefore our task to preserve what we can of the past and to transmit it to the future. 

These words of the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr well describe the responsibility that each of us has to both the past and the future: 

“Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime. … Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history…. Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone.” 

As you go forward as academics or clergy, you will become historians and transmitters of cultural heritage to the next generation. It is your responsibility to work within your communities, play your role in preserving that heritage, and engaging in the task, even though it is not something that any one of us can achieve on our own or within our individual lifetimes.

With that, again my congratulations to the graduates—and thank you.

Read more about 2017 Graduation and Ordination in Cincinnati, Los Angeles, and New York >

Read more about Dr. Gerstenblith and the 2017 honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree >

Watch the recording of HUC-JIR/Cincinnati Graduation 2017 > 


Founded in 1875, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion is North America's leading institution of higher Jewish education and the academic, spiritual, and professional leadership development center of Reform Judaism. HUC-JIR educates men and women for service to North American and world Jewry as rabbis, cantors, educators, and nonprofit management professionals, and offers graduate programs to scholars and clergy of all faiths. With centers of learning in Cincinnati, Jerusalem, Los Angeles, and New York, HUC-JIR's scholarly resources comprise the renowned Klau Library, The Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives, research institutes and centers, and academic publications. In partnership with the Union for Reform Judaism and the Central Conference of American Rabbis, HUC-JIR sustains the Reform Movement's congregations and professional and lay leaders. HUC-JIR's campuses invite the community to cultural and educational programs illuminating Jewish heritage and fostering interfaith and multiethnic understanding. www.huc.edu