From the Detroit Jewish News (December 31, 2004)
By Robert Sklar
Champion of Jewish Studies
“One of my proudest activities has been to help the MSU Jewish Studies program become firmly established in our curriculum both intellectually and fiscally,” [Michigan State University President M. Peter] McPherson said, causing a swell of approval to cascade through the crowd.
“Much of the progress in Jewish education at MSU, all that has been accomplished with the Jewish Studies program, including the new Hillel House, could not have happened without the support and leadership of President McPherson and First Lady Joanne,” Serling said. “It is a wonder that he would have had the time to work so closely with the Jewish community.”
McPherson understood having a strong base of Jewish students from Michigan and elsewhere, just as MSU had when he was a student 45 years earlier. Such a base not only provides diversity, but also draws more Jewish students, who collectively are high achievers, campus leaders and caring alumni. Affirmation of this understanding came in 1999 when, during the genocide arising in the former Yugoslavia, McPherson invited Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel, a Holocaust survivor, to be MSU commencement speaker. For her part, Joanne McPherson has been a regular visitor and participant at Hillel House.
I was touched when Serling told the 71 guests at the Rans’ home about Peter McPherson’s heartfelt support of Israel. Serling, his wife, Elaine, and friends have endowed a chair for Israel Studies at MSU. Bloomfield Hills philanthropist Ed Levy Jr. has endowed a scholarship fund for study in Israel.
Serling told how McPherson, while waiting for a ride to Amman as he ended his four-month stay as part of the coalition reconstruction team in Iraq, spoke by audio feed to a largely non-Jewish crowd back at MSU. Yet he didn’t hesitate to say, “I have a vision of Iraq as a free, democratic country with a growing, successful capitalistic economy like Israel.”
Serling applauded McPherson’s foresight. “Through the seed that you planted,” Serling said, “we have now raised nearly $4 million for Jewish Studies and have much to show for it.”
Retirement aside, McPherson put the call out for another $3 million to enrich Jewish Studies, including a fourth staff position: Jewish Religious and Philosophical Thought. “We will continue to strengthen Jewish Studies as an academic initiative, raise its national visibility and expand its impact,” McPherson said. “President Designate Lou Anna Simon shares my commitment.”
Rabbi Jason Miller, assistant director of the U-M Hillel, graduated from MSU in 1998 with a degree in international relations. “I owe much of my motivation to become a rabbi to the professors in the Jewish Studies program,” he told me on Sunday.
“There has certainly been a concerted effort to enhance and augment the state of Jewish life on the MSU campus,” he added, “and the Jewish Studies program has led the way along with MSU Hillel.”
The Jewish Studies program will forever be an integral component of Peter McPherson’s MSU legacy.