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40 Years of Making A Difference

Woman with curly brown hair and blue jacket smiling at the camera and sitting in front of a book shelf

It would be difficult to find a more suitable candidate to lead a long-established Jewish studies center than Jodi Eichler-Levine.

Eichler-Levine is now director of Lehigh’s Berman Center for Jewish Studies, which will be celebrating its 40th anniversary in 2024. She took over from Hartley Lachter, the director of nine years.

In addition to being a professor of religion studies for 16 years (eight at Lehigh) and teaching nine different religion-themed classes, she has authored two books about Jewish culture, and been featured in multiple publications.

For Eichler-Levine, Berman Professor of Jewish Civilization and Professor of Religion Studies, Jewish studies has always been a life passion.

“When I was 17,” she remembers, “I took part in a summer program at the American Jewish Historical Society, which had archives that were at Brandeis University. A doctoral student took a bunch of high school seniors into the archives. He let us read mail from the 1860s, '70s, '80s.

“I realized there was this job where you could actually hold these pieces of paper from the past, and not only could you connect the past and the present, you could find out how religion and Jewish history and culture connect to everything…politics, theology, literature, you name it.

“I said, I want to do that!”

A Place for Conversations

As director of the Berman Center, Eichler-Levine oversees speaker visits, international programs and seminars including yearly conferences at Oxford University, and contributions to Lehigh’s Jewish Studies minor.

The Berman Center calls itself “a place for conversations”. To Eichler-Levine, that means conversations with a purpose.

“The way people approach religion, or Jewish studies, or the Israel-Palestinian conflict,” she says, “is based on what they read in the headlines. They see a version of the world that fits into 850 words, 1,000 words, whatever the word limit.

Spotlight Recipient

Headshot of Jodi Eichler-Levine

Jodi Eichler-Levine

Berman Professor of Jewish Civilization and Religious Studies

Article By:

Kurt Smith

“I firmly believe that the magic, if you will, of academia comes in our ability to have long and difficult conversations, and for everyone to be able to engage with scholarship.”

— Jodi Eichler-Levine

The Berman Center, she continues, “allows us to have these conversations that are difficult, that cannot be solved in one day, that don't have a single side. People have the misperception that Jewish studies is just for people who are Jewish, but it's really learning about humans, learning about history, learning about life.”

Hartley Lachter also describes the goal of conversations as being contributions from everyone.

“We bring together scholars from different institutions," says Lachter, associate professor of religion studies. “They'll prepare on a certain theme, and all come together and share from their work. By the end of it, new ideas have come together. Research plans have been enhanced, altered, and changed.”

Eichler-Levine credits the Berman Center for facilitating the works of prominent scholars, at Lehigh and beyond.

“There are people who our founding director Larry Silberstein mentored, who are now leaders in the field of Jewish studies, including one of my own mentors, Laura Levitt, who's a professor at Temple University. There's Professor Jessica Carr, the Berman Scholar of Jewish Studies at Lafayette, who does amazing work on Jewish visual culture, Jews in Latin America, and is currently doing research on Jewish graphic novels. There's my colleague, Professor Benjamin Wright, a world-renowned scholar of ancient Judaism. Ben and others took students abroad to study in Israel until the early 2000s.”

She notes that Nitzan Lebovic’s Holocaust classes are among the most popular Berman Center offerings. “He's a brilliant thinker on understanding the politics of fascism and complicity, and all these things that are so important for apprehending our world.”

Lebovic, professor of history, believes the difficult conversations are important for everyone.

“We are trying to be a daring, future oriented and open-minded Center, that proposes not just updating Jewish studies to the 21st century and the challenges it brings, but actively encouraging people to take on those challenges and deal with them.”

Looking to The Future

At the moment, Eichler-Levine and her partners at the Berman Center are just getting started planning events honoring four decades since the Berman family’s original endowment. So far, she’s excited that celebrations throughout 2024 and early 2025 will feature public events and an academic conference, with a focus on the arts in Jewish culture.

“We have a history of bringing incredibly exciting speakers to campus. The authors Michael Chabon and Dara Horn have been here. Last year we brought a fantastic visual artist named Jacqueline Nichols.”

“That was a passion for Philip and Muriel Berman,” she continues. “We think that's a great way to both honor their legacy and look to the exciting future of Jewish studies.”

Eichler-Levine, who teaches classes about Jewish food culture, is also looking forward to an upcoming visit from an author whose artistry is in the kitchen. On November 1, National Jewish Book Award-winning author and chef Michael Twitty, author of Koshersoul, made a speaking appearance.

Dr. Eichler-Levine and her colleagues are rightly proud of the Berman Center’s impact over the years, on faculty, students, and the community.

She shares a message from Lehigh grad Toni Isreal, a Fulbright Semi-Finalist for 2022-23. Isreal is currently an Intelligence Analyst at Amazon.

 “I rely on my background in Jewish Studies and religious studies to provide objective and strategic analysis for my customers living in Israel, to ensure the safety and security of my clients,” Isreal shares.

 Upon reflection, she adds, “I realize that I was spoiled. I took learning from engaging, pioneering, and extremely passionate academics who actually dared to dissect society's flaws and share their insights with students, for granted. I will not make the same mistake when I begin my master's degree in Cyber, Governance, and Politics at Tel Aviv University.

 “I was equipped to face the world with knowledge from at least ten doctorates as my ammo.”

 Isreal, of course, isn’t the only student…or faculty member…for whom the Berman Center has made a difference.

 For Lebovic, the willingness to bring needed conversations to the forefront is what attracted him to Lehigh. He speaks glowingly of “the open-mindedness and the critical thought that was always placed at the center of our activity.”

 For his part, Lachter is well pleased with the Center’s impact on the curriculum.

 “I'm really proud to see the ongoing development of Jewish studies, providing a roster of courses and campus events that are really unique and rich and varied.”

 Eichler-Levine reflects that “I am so proud every time any student, or a graduate student or a faculty member who's early in their career and has attended a Berman program, comes up to me and says how they think about the world or the field differently.”

 “That’s something that Larry started and that Hartley continued, and something that I hope will continue to be the legacy of the Berman Center. That kind of real human connection.”