Gift ensures Jewish history, Holocaust are taught at Western

A six-figure naming gift from the Bernard M. and Audrey Jaffe Foundation has helped to establish the Jaffe Professorship in Jewish History, providing a critical and robust foundation to what will ultimately be a $2 million endowment. As well as the Jaffe gift, multiple local and regional donors have contributed towards the endowment, and the collective support thus far means that the fund has already achieved nearly half of its ultimate goal. That halfway mark is in itself significant: as soon as they have raised $1,000,000, the history department will be able to recruit a new faculty member for the position.

The need for this professorship became apparent following a series of retirements from the department that left a gaping hole in the areas of Jewish history and holocaust studies: Jewish history is crucial for an understanding of world history, and comprehending the context of the Holocaust is of critical importance to understanding certain aspects of the both recent history and the contemporary world, from the Native American and Armenian genocides and Cambodia’s killing fields, to more recent events in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia. “The language for describing these things in the modern world, the language surrounding crimes against humanity,” explains WWU professor of history Steven Garfinkle, “all of those arose in the post-war environment after the Holocaust and are grounded in the international-law-and-relations discussions that followed on from the Holocaust. We have a clear curricular need, not just for our undergraduates, but also in terms of our responsibilities for teacher training: Western trains more social studies teachers than anyone else in the state system; we produce more – and I would say better – teachers for classrooms in history and social studies than anyone else in the state.”

A gift such as the one from the Jaffe Foundation is a game-changer not just for the history department but for the College of Humanities and Social Sciences – for which it represents the largest cash gift ever – and for Western Washington University overall. “This history department professorship is the first endowed position in our college,” asserts CHSS dean LeaAnn Martin. “It’s also a significant acknowledgement of the University and community interest in the study of Jewish history, the Holocaust, genocide and crimes against humanity. It’s an important initiative that will have incredible impact on our students, on our college and on Western for years to come.”

Equally significant, as part of a pool of generous collective giving, the gift signifies a tremendous testament to WWU’s relationship with its immediate community: while substantial gifts have come from friends in Seattle and New York, most of the current funds have been raised locally. “During this effort,” notes Garfinkle, “we’re engaging with people across Washington and even, in a few cases, nationally. But so far the bulk of the fundraising has been based right here in Bellingham. These are people who are very interested in the subject of education, in the subject of history – and they may be particularly interested in Jewish history. But one of the most stimulating aspects of this endeavor is that we’re engaging people with Western who maybe haven’t been directly engaged with Western before, who otherwise might not have thought about Western in their philanthropic efforts. Some are alums, some have children who are alums but some have no direct affiliation with Western other than that they live here in Bellingham or Whatcom County. They clearly look to Western as an important local institution and this is an exciting way for them to get involved.”

That involvement, he concurs with Martin, will impact the University in multiple and ongoing ways. The new professorship, Garfinkle explains, will be part of a wider network of programs and positions that are going to impact the University and the community: “We’re talking about developing a University-wide center focused on holocaust, genocide and crimes against humanity as well as an interdisciplinary minor in holocaust and genocide studies – so this role is really a complementary part of a much larger whole. This professorship will develop and grow Western’s reputation not just for teaching and scholarship, but also as a University that looks after its students, that looks after its faculty and that also looks after its community.”

This article first appeared in The Insider at WWU. It is reprinted here with permission.