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UWM Jewish studies to get new home, new name

By Leon Cohen
Special to The Chronicle

April 30th, 2009

Stacey Oliker sits on the steps of Greene Memorial Museum, the future home for UWM’s Center for Jewish Studies.

Stacey Oliker sits on the steps of Greene Memorial Museum, the future home for UWM’s Center for Jewish Studies.

Practically since its founding in 1997, the Center for Jewish Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee has occupied “two rooms” in Curtin Hall on that campus, according to center director Stacey Oliker.

By the summer of 2010, that will change. Thanks to a $2 million donation from the Baye Foundation — according to a release, the largest gift ever made by that foundation and the largest single gift ever received by UWM’s College of Letters and Science — the Center for Jewish Studies will have a new home and a new name.

That home will be a thoroughly remodeled Greene Memorial Museum, located on Downer Ave. According to Anne Panter, director of major and planned giving to UWM, the building is historic.

It was one of the earliest on the campus, built more than 90 years ago. Moreover, it was designed by a renowned architect of the time, Alexander C. Eschweiler, and is one of the “great examples” of his style, said Panter.

This building had housed a small geology museum until 1992, but that collection has been moved, and the building used for little more than storage. Thanks to this gift, the building will become “a beautiful home for Jewish studies scholarship and outreach to the community,” said Oliker.

The new name will be the Sam and Helen Stahl Center for Jewish Studies. It is being named for the parents of Pearl Berkowitz, a trustee of the Baye Foundation and the widow of Nathan Berkowitz, former president of the foundation.

Long-time Milwaukeeans, the Berkowitzes and their family, including the Stahls, have long supported Jewish causes, especially Jewish learning.

In fact, in an e-mail, Pearl Berkowitz said that she and Nathan helped establish Jewish studies at UWM, and “we felt the next step in maintaining and expanding that department was to fund a center for that purpose.”

According to Oliker, the Stahl Center will be the administrative hub for Jewish studies. Faculty members will have offices there, and she believes there will be room for visiting scholars as well.

Above all, center leaders and the Berkowitz family hope the new center will “inspire the Jewish community of Milwaukee and Wisconsin to follow with gifts to hire world-class scholars and researchers as our faculty members” and “fill the center with scholarship and research,” said Oliker.

At present, the center offers a major and a minor in Jewish studies to undergraduate students. Its program includes Hebrew studies and Jewish cultural studies, said Oliker.

Once an expanded faculty arrives, which would “place UWM on the international map of Jewish scholarship,” then the center “will be in a position to expand its undergraduate program and potentially other programs as well,” said Oliker.

That will be a significant development for Wisconsin Jewry, said Oliker. “As the economy recovers, there are going to be more Jewish parents all over the state looking to Wisconsin universities to educate their children,” she said.

At present, there are “only two great research universities” in Wisconsin that have both Jewish studies programs and “large concentrations of Jewish young people,” UW-Madison and UW-Milwaukee, said Oliker.

And of those two, UWM has a particular advantage. “There is only one great research university where [for Jewish students] extra-curricular learning can take place in a city with great Jewish institutions. And that’s us,” said Oliker.

Panter said the gift from the Baye Foundation “was finalized” this past Dec. 15. The gift and the plans were  officially announced by a UWM official at the Wisconsin Society for Jewish Learning’s annual meeting on April 26 at UWM’s Zelazo Center for the Performing Arts.

Oliker is associate professor of sociology and urban studies. She has been director of the Center for Jewish Studies since January, after the retirement of previous director Chava Frankfort-Nachmias.