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Studying the American Jewish Experience

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Janette Ballard

Feature  •
helen morris and others

DU students will have an opportunity to learn more about the American Jewish Experience thanks to a newly created postdoctoral fellowship in the Center for Judaic Studies (CJS). The postdoc will hold a PhD in a related field, and will teach courses and conduct research on a range of topics that weave Judaic Studies with multiple disciplines in the College of Arts, Humanities & Social Sciences (CAHSS).

The goal is to deepen students' understanding of the Jewish American experience through interdisciplinary learning and through the study of primary materials housed in DU's very own Ira M. & Peryle Hayutin Beck Archives. The pilot two-year position is made possible with support from Dr. Helen Morris (pictured, far right, with Jeanne Abrams and Sarah Pessin), a life-long student and friend of CJS.

For several years, Morris has advocated for more of these types of classes at DU. Her interest began in 2002 after she retired and started auditing classes as a member of the community. The first class she audited was on post-Biblical Jewish history taught through CJS. "It was a marvelous class," she said, and she was hooked.

She has since taken a class every term, from constitutional law to literature and music. But it's the classes on American Jewish history that pull on her heartstrings.

As the daughter of Jewish-American immigrants, Morris knows the story well. Her mother and aunt emigrated from Russia to the U.S. at the start of the Depression. They came to Denver to join a brother who was already here, and was attempting to bring other family to the U.S. The three siblings were the only ones to make it out of Russia, and the only family members to survive WWII.

"My sense is that students, not just Jewish students, should know something about Jewish history, like the origins of the Holocaust and the underlying factors that made such an event possible," she said.

"I'd like to talk about the American Jewish experience, not as a narrowly focused topic, but rather as part of a global story, an American story," said Morris, who believes that the story has relevance to other minority and immigrant populations.

The Center for Judaic Studies is a vibrant source for in-depth Jewish learning on campus and in Colorado, and Morris had always found the faculty engaging. So she worked with CJS and the CAHSS Dean's office to create the postdoc fellowship. The seed money to fund the postdoc for two years will get the ball rolling, and Morris hopes it will inspire other donors to support the fund and continue the postdoc after the initial two years.

"I wanted this to happen. Somebody has to make it happen. I'm going to make it happen," she said.

The new postdoc will add to the faculty in CJS, will have expertise connected to the American Jewish experience — such as Jewish art, literature, political science, anthropology, sociology or history — and will be interested in the immigrant experience, said Morris. The postdoc will provide students with a new set of courses, and will deepen students understanding of Jewish life through interdisciplinary lenses.

Equally important, the postdoc will conduct research using materials from the Beck Archives, as well as other local and national archives, and will help support the work of Professor Jeanne Abrams, director of the Rocky Mountain Jewish Historical Society (RMJHS) and Beck Archives.

As a long-time board member of the Rocky Mountain Jewish Historical Society, Morris has seen how much Abrams has accomplished over the years, but also realizes how much more could be accomplished with additional support.

"Helen is a visionary whose gift has very important implications for our students," said Sarah Pessin, director of the Center for Judaic Studies. "As one of our most dedicated community learners, Helen knows first-hand how vital and transformative the activity of learning is in a university classroom. Now, students will have many more opportunities to take their understanding of the American Jewish experience to a deeper level. Especially at a time where Anti-Semitic, Anti-Muslim, and anti-immigrant hate is on the rise in our country, educating our students about — and helping them find the dignity and humanity in — different religious and cultural groups is more important than ever."

Helen Morris was born and raised in Denver and went to West High School. She was determined to go to college, and began working at age 14 to save for it. She was accepted to the University of Colorado on a scholarship, and used her own money for room and board. She then attended the University of Colorado Medical School where she received her MD and began a career in academia, serving on the Medical School faculty and engaged in research on growth hormone and steroids.

Morris later worked in industry until her retirement. Her interest in the postdoc fellowship stems from her own years as a postdoc at the CU Medical School, where she conducted research, taught students, and ran clinics. "Half of the job was a service job, half of the job was research."

She knew what could be accomplished with a postdoc fellowship, and was committed to making that happen. Her gift will provide very broad based scholarship to study and understand America's minority immigration experience and its broad societal implications in subsequent generations.

You can support the postdoc fund by going online and directing your gift to the "CJS Postdoc in the American Jewish Experience."