Monday, March 30, 2015

Tip of the Hat to My College Professor, Ken Waltzer

Yesterday morning I found myself in a room with about 30 Jewish teens. I had spent Shabbat as scholar-in-residence at Congregation Beth El, a Conservative synagogue in Phoenix, and was asked to talk about college life to these high school students.

I began by sharing with these teens -- some of whom will be off to college in the Fall -- what no one ever told me before I embarked on my college experience twenty years ago. I told them that as I headed off to college I didn't even understand what the differences would be between my future college professors and the school teachers I had encountered to that point. I didn't understand the concept of office hours or that many professors would treat their students as adults. No one told me that professors would invite students to have lunch with them in the cafeteria or actually be interested in your life outside of the classroom.

Rabbi Jason Miller with Prof. Ken Waltzer (2009)

This eye-opening experience I explained occurred for me on the first day of second semester during my freshman year at James Madison College at Michigan State University. I had already discovered that a professor's office hours were an opportune time for some one-on-one learning and a chance for the professor to get to know the student (and vice versa). I had met Ken Waltzer, a professor at James Madison College, because he was an adviser to the relatively new Jewish Student Union of which I was already taking a leadership role. Ken told me about a seminar he would be co-teaching with Professor Barry Gross about the Steven Spielberg film, "Schindler's List," which I had seen during my senior year of high school. He told me that the seminar would not be open to freshmen, but he would allow me to take the class anyway. I eagerly enrolled for it and looked forward to the next semester when I'd have a chance to learn from Ken, a well-respected Holocaust historian.

Rabbi Jason Miller with Prof. Ken Waltzer (1998)

On the first day of second semester I headed out from my residence hall en route to the Student Union at Michigan State University where the seminar would take place. As I walked across the street I heard a car horn honking at me. I was startled until I looked to see it was Ken Waltzer in his car. He rolled down the window and asked if I wanted a ride to class. I took him up on the offer and the rest was history.

That seminar on Schindler's List was fascinating and I was looking forward to taking other courses that Ken taught. I took his popular class called Jews and Anti-Semitism, which was essentially a detailed course about the Holocaust. I was one of a few students who took the honors option for that class by reading and discussing Daniel Jonah Goldhagen's book "Hitler's Willing Executioners" in a weekly study group, with each of us being responsible for teaching a chapter from the book. In the course we read the works of such Holocaust historians as Lucy Dawidowicz, Sir Martin Gilbert, Yehuda Bauer and Raul Hilberg. For the past several years I've been including some of those same books in the syllabus for the Judaism course I teach at Oakland University. For the final thesis I chose to read Tom Segev's book "The Seventh Million" and wrote about Israel's response to the Shoah and its survivors who immigrated to Israel. I later updated that paper and published it on the Web. A couple of years ago I was asked to give the keynote address at Yeshiva University's annual Holocaust symposium after the coordinator of that event read my paper online.

I explained to these high school teens yesterday morning that before I started college, I didn't know that there were opportunities for independent studies. During my senior year of college when it was clear I would be heading to rabbinical school for graduate studies, I remember discussing my intention to study Talmud on a weekly basis in the Metro Detroit area with my rabbi, Danny Nevins. It was Ken who offered to allow me to do that as an independent study with him serving as the adviser. Here I was submitting a paper to Ken, a self-proclaimed secular Jew, about the minutiae of Talmudic law I was learning with a rabbi. On an academic level, he was always interested in learning more about this topic even though they it wasn't part of his field of study. I was honored when Ken chose me, together with Tamara Warren, to receive the first Student of the Year award from the Jewish Studies Program at Michigan State University.

Right after I graduated from the rabbinical school at the Jewish Theological Seminary in 2004, Ken became the director of the Jewish Studies Program at MSU. The program had only begun in 1994, when Ken teamed up with Professor Steve Weiland. In 2005, while I was working at the University of Michigan Hillel Foundation in Ann Arbor, Ken contacted me to see if I'd be willing to teach two courses for Jewish Studies. I was honored to be asked and jumped at the opportunity. It was a nice way for us to reconnect after my time in New York for rabbinical school. In more recent years, I've had the chance to invite Ken to speak about his research to groups in the Detroit area, including Jewish teens. A few years ago, Ken hired me to create a new website for the Jewish Studies Program and manage its social media marketing -- work I have continued following his retirement. It has meant a great deal to me to be able to give back to a mentor who influenced me so much -- in many cases that means meeting for lunch in East Lansing and coaching Ken to use Facebook, with which he has become a maven and now uses Facebook as a forum to raise awareness of his Holocaust research and to promote a balanced perspective of Israel and the Middle East.

It was meaningful that I had the chance to talk to these Jewish high school teens yesterday morning about the opportunities that await them in college because it gave me the opportunity to reflect on Ken's impact on my life as a teacher, mentor and friend. Sadly, since I had already committed to a full weekend scholar-in-residence speaking engagement in Phoenix, I wasn't able to attend Ken Waltzer's Big Bash Retirement Celebration at Michigan State this weekend. Former students from around the country, who like me were influenced by Ken's dedication to his students, traveled to East Lansing to pay homage to Ken.

Ken Waltzer's 43 years of teaching, scholarship and service were beautifully characterized in a front page article in this past week's Detroit Jewish News. The article focused on Ken's groundbreaking research about the Buchenwald Boys, his commitment to teaching about the Holocaust and anti-Semitism, his passion for study abroad experiences for Michigan State students in Israel, his ability to fight the BDS Movement (Boycott, Divest and Sanction Israel), and his unyielding commitment to both James Madison College and the Jewish Studies Program at Michigan State University.

I join with so many other former students of Ken Waltzer in honoring him on his many years of success as a professor, scholar and visionary. Most important for me, he has been a cherished mentor and taught me about the valuable relationship that was possible between a college professor and student.

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