A Spiritual Journey Conducted in Academia

David Ruderman has a passion – an obsession, really – with excavating the Jewish past. He also happens to be a rabbi who heads what he calls a "great secular yeshiva."

The 61-year-old Lower Merion resident serves the University of Pennsylvania in two capacities: as the Joseph Meyerhoff Professor of Modern Jewish History, and as director of the Center for Advanced Judaic Studies, an institution that hosts Judaic scholars from around the world for a yearlong sabbatical, during which they do research in their respective fields.

The prospect of running the center – his "yeshiva" – is what helped lure the man away from Yale University in 1994.

"There is a need for me to explore Jewish lives of the past, to resurrect them and bring them back into the historical memory," says Ruderman, whose area of expertise includes the history of the early modern period. He frequently focuses his work on Jewish life during the Italian renaissance.

"For me, learning has always been the primary way I express my Jewish identity. It's the way for my Jewish soul to connect with other Jewish souls," he says from his campus office, the smaller of his two workspaces.

The son of a Reform rabbi who was also an Army chaplain, Ruderman, a father himself of two grown children, was born in 1944 in Manhattan. The family, however, moved a number of times in Ruderman's childhood, following the father's relocation to different congregations.

Since he always had to switch towns and schools, he found a social network and some stability in the Young Judaea Zionist youth group and summer camp. In fact, after high school, Ruderman spent a year in Israel with Young Judaea before heading to City College in New York.

He studied European history, but kept asking himself through it all: What was happening to the Jews just then? That curiosity has driven his intellectual pursuits ever since.

After earning a master's degree in Jewish history from Columbia University, he settled on rabbinical school, partly because he felt he needed a stronger grounding in Talmud and Midrash to better understand Jewish civilization. He readily admits that he also worried about ever finding a job as a scholar.

Ruderman attended Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York from 1967 to 1971, but ultimately decided to pursue an academic life. In 1975, he earned his doctorate in Jewish history from Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

"I felt fairly unique because there weren't many Americans in my class," recounts Ruderman, who has been fluent in Hebrew since his teenage years. "It allowed me to situate myself between America and Israel."

Wearer of Many Hats
Now, after 30-plus-years in academia, Ruderman sees himself as a researcher, writer and, as far as the center is concerned, an administrator and fundraiser.

But he's certainly not lost his enthusiasm for teaching undergraduate and graduate students, and credits the enormous growth of Penn's Judaic-studies program with creating an environment where Jews of all backgrounds – and even non-Jews – can explore history together.

"I can get Orthodox, Reform and Conservative kids, and put them in the same classroom. The Jewish community can't do that," claims Ruderman, noting that a high percentage of his students actually come from Orthodox backgrounds.

"I do believe that Jewish history is a vehicle for enriching one's Jewish identity," he says. "This is something that is very deep within me, and at the very heart of what I consider spiritual about my relationship with Judaism and Jewish life."



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