"The American Jewish experience has been as fascinating as any in world history," said Alexander, 36, who in addition to running the Feinstein Center is finishing up his first semester as the Murray Friedman chair of American Jewish History at Temple. "America is really the first location that our identity as outsiders has been threatened simply by our acceptance" by the surrounding population.
Friedman, the longtime director of the Philadelphia chapter of the American Jewish Committee, died last year at the age of 78; he started the center in 1990 as a joint project of AJCommittee and Temple.
Alexander, who most recently taught courses on Israel and the Holocaust at the University of Oklahoma, explained that with his hiring, the center will solely be affiliated with the university.
The Long Island native earned a bachelor's degree in Oriental studies from the University of Pennsylvania and a doctorate in Jewish history from Yale University. His 2001 book, Jazz Age Jews, explores among other things how Jews helped start the gambling industry in America.
Locus of Intellectual Life
Alexander said that Jewish-studies programs on campuses now serve as the locus of American Jewish intellectual life, and are serving to educate a generation of college kids with limited Jewish backgrounds. He based the argument partly on his own past: He essentially stopped his Jewish learning after his Bar Mitzvah, picking it up only after arriving at Penn.
"I took a course in Genesis, and I got hooked," he explained, adding that he was soon studying biblical Hebrew, Talmud and mysticism. "And before I knew it, I was in graduate school."
Alexander argued that to truly engage the next generation of Jews, scholars must produce enthralling – not dry – works.
"In order to bring that vitality to people, we must produce the right kinds of books," he said. "There aren't enough works of American Jewish history on our shelves."
That's where Alexander, like his predecessor, believes the Feinstein Center comes into play.
He said that under Friedman, the center earned a reputation for finding young, promising scholars and awarding grants to help them finish their work. The new director wants to take this idea a step further by bringing emerging American Jewish scholars to Philadelphia for a year – offering resources and financial assistance – to teach at Temple.
He also plans to have the center sponsor academic conferences on a regular basis.
Andrew Isenberg, chair of Temple's history department, said Alexander was one of 13 departmental professors hired in the last year or so, most of whom specialize in American history.
He said that in the early 1970s, Temple had one of the largest history departments in the country, but tough economic times forced it to scale back. Now, he argued, the department is well on its way to regaining the clout it once had, particularly in the area of American religious history.
"We wanted to establish ourselves as a department with a higher profile – and Michael is very much a part of that," said Isenberg. "He is making [this] a place where people who do American Jewish history will look to" for funding and inspiration.