Gary Zola

Gary Zola

Gary Phillip Zola is the Executive Director of The Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives (AJA) and the Edward M. Ackerman Family Distinguished Professor of the American Jewish Experience & Reform Jewish History at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) in Cincinnati. The AJA is the world’s largest free-standing research center dedicated solely to the study of the American Jewish experience. He received both his rabbinic ordination (1982) and his Ph.D. in American Jewish History (1991) from HUC-JIR.

Professor Zola became the AJA’s second director in 1998, succeeding his teacher and mentor, Professor Jacob Rader Marcus (1896-1995), the prodigious scholar who first defined the field of American Jewish history. It was Marcus who founded the AJA in 1947 and served as its director until his death in 1995. Under Professor Zola’s leadership, the AJA’s renowned collection has grown and the center’s dynamic array of programs is now housed in a world-class complex of three interconnected structures including the newly erected Edwin A. Malloy Education Building and the Jewish Foundation of Cincinnati’s International Learning Center. Zola is widely recognized by colleagues as an innovator in his field, who has enlarged the public’s access to the AJA’s holdings, expanded The Marcus Center’s programmatic activities, and encouraged the institution to make use of 21st century technologies.

Professor Zola is also known as a historian of American Jewry who specializes in the 19th century American Judaism and the history of American Reform Judaism. Since 1998, Zola has been the editor of The Marcus Center’s award-winning biannual publication, The American Jewish Archives Journal. His own published volumes include We Called Him Rabbi Abraham: Lincoln and American Jewry (Southern Illinois University Press, 2014); American Jewish History: A Primary Source Reader (co-edited by Marc Dollinger and published by Brandeis University Press, 2014); The Americanization of the Jewish Prayer Book and The Liturgical Development of Congregation Ahawath Chesed, New York City (New York: Central Synagogue, 2008); A Place of Our Own: The Rise of Reform Jewish Camping in America (co-edited with Michael M. Lorge and published by the University of Alabama Press, 2006); The Dynamics of American Jewish History: Jacob Rader Marcus’s Essays on American Jewry (Brandeis University Press, 2004); Women Rabbis: Exploration and Celebration (HUC-JIR Alumni Press, 1996) and Isaac Harby of Charleston (the University of Alabama Press, 1994), a major biographical study on the life of one of the founders of the first organized effort to reform Judaism in the United States of America. In addition to these volumes, Zola has published dozens of scholarly articles and book reviews.

George Washington, Jews, and the Story of Religious Freedom in America

The U.S. Constitution famously declares that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”  This distinctively American principle has recently been the topic of much discussion.  This principle comes into play when we discuss how to examine immigrant refugees for entry into the US.  This topic also comes into play when we discuss the topic of “American culture.”  Are some religions more “American” than others?  This famous clause is at the heart of the debate over the “proper” place of religion in America life.

For instance, in her 2014 dissenting opinion on the U.S. Supreme Court’s “Greece vs. Galloway” decision, Elena Kagan – Associate Justice – made reference to one of the best-known letters in all of American Jewish history: President Washington’s letter to the Jews of Congregation Yeshuat Israel (a.k.a. “Touro Synagogue”), Newport, Rhode Island.  According to Justice Kagan, this letter – written in 1790 – confirmed the Constitution’s “promise” to guarantee every religion in America “full and equal membership” in the nation’s polity.

Professor Gary P. Zola will provide our community with an opportunity to examine this famous letter closely.  Working together, we will explore the historical circumstances that prompted “the father of our nation” to compose this interesting letter, and we will consider the first president’s perspective on the tension between the competing ideals of “minority rights” & “majority rules” relates to our contemporary circumstances.


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