Orange Alert

Phyllis Backer Foundation Establishes Jewish Studies Professorship

Professorship will bring 'vitality, innovation, cohesiveness' to campus, Dean Ruhlandt says

Oct. 26, 2017, by Robert M Enslin


A major gift from The Phyllis Backer Foundation will enhance the depth and breadth of modern Jewish studies at Syracuse University.

The Foundation has made a $1.5 million gift to establish The Phyllis Backer Professor of Jewish Studies in the College of Arts and Sciences (A&S). A national search will be launched for a teacher-scholar fluent in topics relating to Jews and Judaism, including history, religion, literature, philosophy, languages and politics.

“The Phyllis Backer Professorship brings vitality, innovation and cohesiveness to our scholarly community,” says Karin Ruhlandt, dean of A&S and a Distinguished Professor of Chemistry. “This professorship supports our signature focus on the study and teaching of the Jewish experience in modern times, as well as Jewish culture and ideas. Such work takes place against a broad, cross-disciplinary background.”  

One of more than two-dozen interdisciplinary programs in A&S, Jewish Studies offers a bachelor’s degree in Modern Jewish Studies and a Jewish Studies minor. The program’s internationally renowned faculty, directed by Zachary Braiterman, professor of religion, hails from various units within A&S and across campus, including the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs and the College of Visual and Performing Arts.

Collaborative work has been the hallmark of Jewish Studies, since its inception in 1980. Today, the program is one of the nation’s finest, a purveyor of modern Judaic thought and culture.

Leonard S. Elman ’52, who chairs the Foundation, has been a longtime supporter of Syracuse University and its programs.  The Foundation was established by the late Phyllis Backer, a lifelong resident of Queens, New York.  Upon her death in March 2016, at age 90, Ms. Backer left her estate to the Foundation, whose charitable mission is to support organizations involved in medical research and education, with an emphasis on Jewish-related causes.

“The establishment of the Phyllis Backer Professorship will perpetuate the memory of the late Phyllis Backer, who established the Phyllis Backer Foundation to support Jewish philanthropy and education,” says Elman. “By making this gift, the Foundation’s board has implemented the Foundation’s purposes by furthering and encouraging Jewish studies at Syracuse University.”

“At the same time, it is supporting the social sciences and humanities in the College of Arts and Sciences, a longtime interest of mine,” Elman says.

Ruhlandt, for one, appreciates the long-range impact of the Foundation’s generosity—not only in A&S, but also across campus.

“This gift ensures Syracuse’s place at the forefront of Jewish teaching, research and scholarship,” she adds. “The Phyllis Backer Professorship provides a platform for new approaches to modern Jewish history. It also helps us answer universal questions about identity, namely ethnicity, language, religion and gender. Such transformational philanthropy elevates our reputation and broadens our aspirations.”

Media Contact

Robert M Enslin