Institute for Israel and Jewish Studies: Q&A with Dana Kresel, Program Coordinator
“We bring in nuanced thinkers, people who can take complex issues and make them accessible.”
By Ethan Wolff
The Institute for Israel and Jewish Studies, or IIJS, is Columbia University’s center for the academic study and discussion of Jewish life, history, and culture. For fifty years, it has trained students and scholars to explore the best that’s been thought and said in the field, and examines the length and breadth of Jewish history and culture as well as Israel and all of its nuances. About ten years ago, the IIJS expanded its focus to include undergraduate and public programming in addition to supporting faculty and graduate students. The roster of guests in the IIJS’s public talks and screenings is carefully curated, aimed at being timely, enlightening, and elevating. Thought Gallery sat down with Dana Kresel, Program Coordinator for the IIJS, to find out more about the Institute’s mission.
Thought Gallery: What kinds of events do you offer that are open to the public?
IIJS: We have many categories of public programming, but I’ll highlight just three of them here. First are our talks on Israel and foreign policy, topics like natural resources in Israel; anti-Semitism in Europe; the Iran nuclear deal and its impact on the American Jewish community; extremism in Israel; and so forth. Second are our film screenings, where we’re lucky enough to often have the director and the producer (and occasionally actors) on hand for a Q&A afterwards. They include recently released pop culture movies to more thoughtful documentaries. And they always have English subtitles. Finally, we’ve begin featuring authors of a wide swath of Jewish and Israel studies, from Biblical literature to contemporary Israeli and Jewish literature. We do so much, and I’d encourage people to check out the calendar on our website, www.iijs.columbia.edu, or join our mailing list, to keep track of the events we add on a regular basis!
TG: Who is your audience?
IIJS: We welcome anyone looking to engage in nuanced, insightful conversations and research about Israel and Jewish studies: students; alumni; our Morningside Heights neighbors; people from the larger tri-state area. We have amazing speakers and programs who provide insight into really complicated topics, and that’s of interest to quite a number of people of all ages and backgrounds.
TG: There are a lot of Jewish institutions in New York. What sets you apart?
IIJS: We’re affiliated with Columbia University, for one thing—and the same standard you associate with a leading academic institution, we expect and demand of ourselves. We like to highlight our academic identity. Our programming is high-quality, designed to raise the level and quality of the conversation. We’re hoping to supplement what undergraduate students are learning in their classrooms and what our community is reading about in the press. When we select speakers, we’re able to attract the best in the field. We won’t bring in anyone who won’t do that topic justice.
TG: How does the IIJS fit into the cultural landscape of New York City?
IIJS: I’ll answer that by saying what we’re not. We’re not a synagogue, we’re not a Jewish student life organization. We’re not tapping into the religious side of Jewish life. We look at Israel and Jewish Studies from the academic standpoint, and so we host programs and offer courses that are thoughtful, content-full intellectual conversations, but that are accessible to everyone.
TG: What process do you use in selecting your speakers?
IIJS: Our process is to get the best people in their fields. We look for topics that are timely. We ask, what’s going on in the news? And with regard to the films series, we look at films that expose the public to Israel’s vibrant and diverse culture—it also helps that many have won recent awards.
TG: So many conversations about Israel today involve at least the potential for vitriol. Are there any topics you shy away from?
IIJS: We’re sensitive to the controversies. We welcome people who are respectful and constructive. We bring in nuanced thinkers, people who can take complex issues and make them accessible. At our events, everyone can ask questions and learn, and our hope is that everyone comes out knowing something they didn’t know before.
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