Political Science Prof. Andrei Markovits launched his new book, “Hillel at Michigan 1926/27-1945: Struggles of Jewish Identity in a Pivotal Era,” at the University of Michigan Hillel Building Sunday, the day before the organization’s 90th anniversary.
Markovits, the 2007 recipient of the University Golden Apple Award for outstanding teaching, discussed how he came to research Hillel — a community center for Jewish students on college campuses — in front of an audience of about 40 people. He said he initially planned on just looking at the history of Jews at the University, before realizing how significant Hillel was to campus.
“Very soon it became clear that a chapter alone would not suffice and that this institution was worthy of a book,” Markovits said.
Markovits read excerpts from his new book, highlighting particularly noteworthy findings, including the national Hillel’s founding in 1923 Illinois by a Christian minister who wanted Jews to have a greater understanding of their religion before making its way to the University a few years later. He also discussed early tensions between Jewish Greek life and Hillel as well as the contrasting ideologies over how to combat anti-Semitism that existed at the time.
“On a snowy day like this, for a book that is relatively specialized and a bit obscure, for them to come out on a day like this, that’s a big deal,” Markovits said of the event. “I felt very good that people were here.”
Hillel Development Manager Shayna Millman highlighted the value of Markovits’ book for the organization.
“I think it’s just really important for us, as we celebrate our 90th anniversary, to really continue to remember where we came from and what we were founded upon in order to successfully move forward and to see what things we do differently and what aspirations and opportunities and challenges we face that are still the same,” Millman said.
LSA senior David Beer, who has taken multiple classes with Markovits, said he found the event to be informative and also beneficial for the University as a whole.
“I’m a Jewish student here so I find the history of Hillel pretty interesting, but I don’t really know anything about it so it’s good to learn,” Beer said. “For the history of the University of Michigan, I think it’s very important. Knowing where we come from is always important in my opinion.”
Some members of the audience were students who helped Markovits conduct his research and write the book. Law student Charles Sorge who was a research assistant for this project, said it raised important points for the University.
“I worked for Professor Markovits on this and another project and I think just his genuine interest in this University and his passion toward the subject really shows through in the writing,” Sorge said. “I think it’s important for the University to commemorate Hillel’s birthday and to bring topics up that perhaps not a lot of other students, for sure not Jewish students, are aware of.”
Markovits acknowledged the experience of writing about an organization at the institution where he is employed, but said it hadn't impacted his work.
“It’s perfectly possible — in fact it’s required — to be dispassionate,” Markovits said. “If I had been a professor at Berkley, it would have been the same. If this had been the Ohio State Hillel, it would have been the same.”
He added that he's currently working on another, similar book.
“The future book is almost a little bit inverted. Here the whole story is about Hillel. It’s about not only Jewish students, but it's about particular Jewish students. I want to look at how the University behaves toward Jews,” Markovits added.
For now, he said he is pleased with the book he’s just released.
“If you had said to me, a year from now, you’ll have a book on Michigan Hillel, I’d have said you’re insane,” he said.
Correction appended: A previous version of this article mislabeled the amount of attendees present.