Faculty Spotlight: Rabbi Gary P. Zola, Ph.D. '82 '91

Tuesday, November 1, 2022

Rabbi Gary P. Zola, Ph.D. ’82 ’91
Executive Director of The Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives;
The Edward M. Ackerman Family Distinguished Professor
of the American Jewish Experience and Reform Jewish History

Please tell us about your Jewish journey and your journey to HUC-JIR.
I grew up in Evanston, Illinois. My journey toward the rabbinate and HUC began when I was about 10 years old, when it was my parents’ desire that I would become a bar mitzvah. They joined a Reform synagogue named Temple Beth El of Chicago. My rabbi, Victor H. Weissberg, was a graduate of HUC in Cincinnati. He is still very much in the land of the living – now in his mid-nineties – and thank heavens, still well and active. He was an especially important figure, and he shaped my thinking about the synagogue and Jewish life. Rabbi Weissberg is a very learned and charismatic man. He and the synagogue leaders encouraged me to go to the Reform Movement’s summer camp, located in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin. It is known today as Olin-Sang-Ruby Union Institute. That experience was pivotal, because it was at camp where I first began to really learn about Judaism. I also began to meet all sorts of remarkable rabbis, including many rabbis who were German refugees. We had quite a large contingent of German refugees who came to America in the 1930’s, fleeing from Nazi Germany. The rabbis urged me and a number of my camp friends to consider the rabbinate. That profession was not on my agenda, but I do recall what one rabbi at camp said to me: “Gary, if you become a lawyer, you will be just another lawyer, but if you become a rabbi, you will make a unique contribution to the Jewish people.”

All through my college years, I was unable to make a decision about my professional ambitions. Should I enter the rabbinate, or should I become a lawyer? I finished my undergraduate studies at the University of Michigan, majoring in American history. The summer after I graduated from Michigan (1974), I was a “unit head” at camp. This was the most important summer of my life, because a beautiful girl from Long Island decided to travel to Oconomowoc, Wisconsin, to be a counselor. That beautiful girl, Stefi Rothberg, was assigned to my unit. I will be forever grateful to OSRUI because it was there that I met my best friend and life partner. Once I began seeing Stefi, being together with her was all that was on my agenda. She moved to Evanston so we could be closer together, and we both studied at Northwestern University. I completed a master’s degree in Educational Psychology, and Stefi earned a baccalaureate degree in Speech Pathology.

Stefi and I were married in 1976, the year she completed her undergraduate degree at Northwestern. The time had come for me to decide which direction I would go, professionally speaking. I applied both to rabbinical school at HUC and to law school, and was admitted to both. Stefi deserves credit for my decision to begin rabbinical school as opposed to law school. Stefi said, “Well, if you cannot make up your mind which way to go, let us start at HUC. The first year of studies will be in Jerusalem. How bad can a year in Israel be? It will be a beautiful experience. We are both young, and at the very least we will have a good time together in Jerusalem. If it turns out that you feel you are not cut out to be a rabbi, then you can withdraw and reapply to law school.” This is, in short, my pathway to the HUC-JIR and the rabbinate.

Please tell me about your favorite treasure at the AJA and what you want people to know about the AJA.
Let me begin by pointing out that I have always been interested in history. I majored in American history at the University of Michigan and then, when I was working on my master’s degree at Northwestern, I once again specialized in the history of education. Aside from one course at Michigan in modern Jewish history, I really did not know very much about Jewish history. I had no knowledge of American Jewish history. I only began to learn about Jewish history when I began my rabbinical curriculum here in Cincinnati. History was a vital component of the curriculum here. It was during my year-long course in Jewish history that I first met Dr. Jacob Rader Marcus (the founder of the American Jewish Archives). For me, Dr. Marcus was a transformational teacher. I always say that from the minute I met him, I felt like a cat that had been exposed to catnip. As a student, I simply could not get enough of Dr. Marcus. I revered him. It seemed to me that Dr. Marcus was a walking computer. He appeared to know literally everything about the American Jewish experience. I was fascinated by his personality, and I held him in the deepest of respect. Dr. Marcus was 83 years old when I was a second-year rabbinical student in Cincinnati, so I deduced that every year that he was teaching was a precious blessing. I took as many courses as I could with him. Little did I know that Dr. Marcus would live to be just a few months shy of his 100th birthday! I was blessed to have him as my teacher and my mentor for 17 years.

Dr. Marcus introduced me and all of those who studied in Cincinnati to American Jewish history and, also, to the campus’s remarkable resource: the American Jewish Archives (AJA). Every one of us was required to make use of the AJA, because our history teachers taught us how to use primary source materials for the study of history. Learning how to use the AJA was an important part of our rabbinic school curriculum. I was one of many who fell in love with Dr. Marcus’s methodology. And I just fell in love with these documents and the role they play in studying history.

Here I must confess that even though I venerated Dr. Marcus, I am quite certain that he had not selected me to succeed him. In fact, I highly doubt that he had anyone in mind as a successor. Dr. Marcus conducted himself as if he planned to live forever. Therefore I doubt he gave serious thought to selecting his own successor. Dr. Marcus seemed to be the embodiment of American Jewish history and the AJA, so who could replace him? He founded the AJA in 1947, and he directed it until he died in 1995. However, after Dr. Marcus’s death, the president of the College-Institute – in consultation with the faculty – decided that I would succeed Dr. Marcus. It is hard to believe that all of that took place 25 years ago. The time has gone by so quickly!

Let me also add that my work over the past 25 years has been truly an unbridled joy. It has been an unhemmed pleasure to direct the AJA, to watch it grow over the last quarter century – its facility has expanded, its collection has grown, and its reputation has been enhanced. The AJA is today the most highly respected research center dedicated solely to the study of American Jewry. I believe it has become the world’s largest cataloged collection of documentary evidence on American Jewish life.

There are 35 million pieces of paper at the American Jewish Archives – more than 15,000 linear feet of primary source material. So I have many favorite documents! However, there is one document that stands out as particularly moving. There is a letter from a man by the name of Jacob Ezekiel (1812-1899), an American-born citizen. Ezekiel was raised in Philadelphia, but as a young man he set up business in Richmond, Virginia. In Richmond, Ezekiel evidently became acquainted with his congressman, a man named John Tyler. This John Tyler is the man who would eventually become the 10th president of the United States following the death of William Henry Harrison in 1841.

Upon the death of President Harrison, who died of pneumonia after being in office for only one month, Tyler became the first Vice President in US history to succeed to the presidency. Upon ascending to the presidency, Tyler issues a proclamation wherein he calls on all Americans to go to their houses of worship to prayerfully lament the sudden passing of President Harrison. Mr. Tyler’s proclamation decree began with these words: “When a Christian people feel themselves to be overtaken by a great public calamity, it becomes them to humble themselves under the dispensation of Divine Providence (emphasis added)…” Jacob Ezekiel read the words of this proclamation in his local newspaper, and he was clearly irked by Tyler’s choice of wording. Since he knew Mr. Tyler from Richmond, Ezekiel decided to write Tyler a strong letter to remind the new president that America is not a Christian nation. Ezekiel wrote a moving letter to remind the new president that even though most Americans were Christian by religion, America is not a Christian nation. Ezekiel words have always inspired me. Here is precisely what he wrote in his letter to Tyler: “I as well as others were somewhat surprised to find in the columns of our Journals, as in the age in which we live, that the Chief Magistrate of this Union should by an Official recommendation to the People of the United States, address a ‘Christian People as being overtaken by a general public calamity’ no doubt forgetting that during the Revolution of this Country blood of all denominations was shed for its freedom, in those days there was no distinction it was not asked whether it was Christian, Jewish, or Pagan, blood that flowed freely for the liberty we all now possess.”

The AJA possesses the actual letter that Ezekiel sent to Tyler, and we also have President Tyler’s response. Tyler, in a very clever way, assures Ezekiel that he agrees with him! Mr. Ezekiel had both the letter he wrote to Tyler and the letter that Mr. Tyler wrote in return to Mr. Ezekiel. I suspect that the President stuffed Mr. Ezekiel’s letter into the same envelope that contained his rejoinder. Ezekiel’s letter is emblematic of one of the most important contributions that the American Jew has made to this nation. We are a small religious minority today and, in fact, we have always been a small religious minority. Yet we have been a part of the American experience from the early days of the Colonial period. So no one can say that we are newcomers. American Jews are certainly not interlopers, because we have been here from the earliest stages of European settlement. Therefore, the Jew – for a variety of reasons – has continually compelled America to actualize and make good on the lofty promises that are enshrined in this nation’s founding documents. As a distinct religious minority, the Jew has always had a unique interest in making certain that this nation makes good on the ideology contained within the words of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Ezekiel’s letter to the president is one of many inspiring examples of the Jew’s persistent courage in fighting for the principled and enlightened ideas upon which the American republic was founded. This is why I cite the Ezekiel letters whenever I am asked to identify the AJA document I like most of all.

Please tell me about your recently published book, New Perspectives in American Jewish History.
I do a great deal of work with primary source documents, and many of my published volumes are documentary histories. In this way, I believe I am following (in my own small way) my teacher, Dr. Marcus. Primary source documents make history come to life. I hope my reference to the Ezekiel letter is an illustration of that assertion. So when Dr. Mark Raider of the University of Cincinnati, a friend and colleague, suggested that we collaborate on writing a new volume in honor of Professor Jonathan D. Sarna 65th birthday, we both had a documentary volume in mind from our earliest conversations on this project. Dr. Sarna deserved this recognition, as he has become one of the most important and influential American Jewish historians working in our field. Since Dr. Raider and I were his students (I was Dr. Sarna’s first Ph.D. student), we both had very personal reasons for wanting to produce a fine volume that would be useful as a tool for teaching about the American Jewish experience in the college setting, in an adult study context, or in any classroom.

Dr. Sarna has had 36 Ph.D. students over the course of his career (up to the time we published this tribute volume). Dr. Raider and I wrote to every one of Dr. Sarna’s Ph.D. students, many of whom are today distinguished professors. We said, “We want you to pick out one document from your field of expertise in American Jewish history that has, as far as you know, never been published. If you believe this new document is historically significant and interesting, then we want you to write an introductory paragraph or two or three to explain why this document is so historically illuminating and what it teaches a reader about the American Jewish experience.” We also asked the contributors to annotate the document they have chosen so that the reader will gain knowledge about the names, places, dates, ideas, etc. that appear in the document.

So we collected contributions from each one of Dr. Sarna’s 36 Ph.Ds., and we ended up with a wonderful array of new documents that shed light on the American Jewish experience from the Colonial period to the present. The book turned out just as we had hoped. We authored a useful introductory essay about Dr. Sarna’s contributions to the field and, also, we explained how this book of fresh documents could be used as an effective teaching tool. I believe the book is a genuine contribution to the field.

Dr. Raider and I are currently working on another edited volume. This forthcoming book will be titled “An Equal Share of Freedom”: American Jews, Zionism, and World War I, and we expect this new publication will be available early in 2023.

Please describe HUC-JIR in one word.

What do you enjoy in your free time?
First of all, I love to travel, especially with Stefi. We have been married for 46 years (and we have known one another for 48 years). By extension, of course, I also love to be with my four children and my five grandchildren.

Secondly, I like to exercise and keep physically active. I like to swim and do aerobics and calisthenics.

Do you have anything else you want to add?
I suppose it is obvious by this point in our conversation that during my formative years I did not consider myself to be rabbinic material! Even when I began to study at HUC-JIR, it seemed as though I was assessing the career to see if it was the right path for me. The very last thing that I would have predicted when I was a student here on the Cincinnati campus is that I would remain in Cincinnati for the entirety of my professional career! Today, in retrospect, it is fair to say that almost everything about my rabbinate has been something of a surprise to me. Yet I now can say that I have never regretted the path I took. I have had an extremely rewarding, interesting, and fulfilling career.

I recall my first visit to the Queen City of the West – Cincinnati. Cincinnati is much smaller than Chicago, Illinois, where I was raised. It was my assumption back then that I would be in Cincinnati for four years, until Ordination, and then I would leave to serve the Jewish people somewhere else. I never expected that I would be invited to join the administration of HUC. Even then, when I accepted my first post here at HUC in Cincinnati – my employment began only days after my Ordination in 1982 – I still assumed that I would remain at the College for only a few years and, when the time came, I would leave for another assignment elsewhere. It is hard to believe that I was only 30 years old when I began my work at HUC in Cincinnati. The past 45 years seem to have flown by in an instant.

I would also like to emphasize that much of my fulfillment as a rabbi and an academic has come from the relationship I have had with my teachers, my colleagues, my students (who are, of course, my rabbinical colleagues), and the amazing, remarkable world of American Jewish history – and that includes the unceasingly interesting, captivating American Jewish Archives. To this grouping, I must also add that the wonderful people of Cincinnati have embraced and adopted me and made me feel at home in Cincinnati. From the moment I arrived in August of 1978, the people of Cincinnati have welcomed me and my family. The good people of this community have encouraged me to serve as a community leader in ways I never anticipated. I feel that I must underscore the remarkable role that Cincinnati itself, the people of Cincinnati, both Jews and non-Jews, have played in the unfolding of my rabbinate and my professional career.