The Center for Jewish History, the collaborative home in Manhattan of five institutions — the American Jewish Historical Society, the Leo Baeck Institute, Yeshiva University Museum, YIVO Institute for Jewish Research and the American Sephardi Federation — this week named David Myers as president and CEO.
Myers, a prolific author and editor, is a longtime history professor and administrator at the University of California at Los Angeles. He also was director of the school’s Center for Jewish Studies.
Myers, who starts his new position on July 1, succeeds Joel Levy, who will serve the local Center as a consultant.
The Jewish Week spoke with Myers by phone this week.
Q.: You’ve shaped an academic career as a scholar and author. How much of an adjustment will it be to become a fulltime administrator?
A.: It will be something of a transition. Over the course of my career, I’ve paired a commitment to teaching and scholarship with a commitment to serving the larger academic community, [chairing] the UCLA history department, one of the largest history departments in the United States.
What will be your first priorities at the center? Are there any specific programs or activities you are considering adding or changing?
My first priority is to understand better the institutional culture of the Center. The center faces both the challenge and the opportunity of fully entering the digital age … to reach people out there in the world who are interested in the Jewish experience.
Social observers say we are living in an ahistorical culture. How do you make the past relevant, especially to young people?
History is not a study of dead texts or events alone. History is the DNA of the Jewish people, an ongoing legacy. We have never needed historical depth and analysis more than now.
The rapidity of the news cycle, the instantaneous nature of social media, agitate against a deep historical perspective and understanding, We have to get better at the work of translating our research into simple language. We need to do that through public programs, online publishing and public courses.
The center is an amalgam of several Jewish organizations that have disparate missions. How do you find common cause under one roof? How do you make it work?
All of the distinguished partners of the center are committed to the study of history. Their different cultural and geographical interests only redound to the benefit of an expansive center idea. It moves us closer to [fully] covering the wider Jewish experience.
Are such cooperative efforts the future of academic institutions, particularly in the Jewish community?
I don’t think it’s the only template for success, but it’s an important template.
You write frequently on such topics as the Middle East peace process and academic freedom. What advocacy role do you see an academic playing, how do you strike a balance between advocating for a political position and staying above the fray?
It is important for society to have a historically informed analysis. Over the last year and a half [at UCLA] I’ve been a private citizen; I had no administrative responsibilities. I felt a responsibility to express my views on various topics. Now I represent the Center; my job is not to speak openly on anything that [enters] my mind.
Your bio says that in addition to heading The Center for Jewish History you’ll also be spending this academic year as the inaugural director of the UCLA Luskin Center for History and Policy. Do you plan to do a lot of traveling in the coming months?
Yes, I do. I’ll be moving back and forth between New York and Los Angeles a great deal.