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New Man, New Tests At YIVO

New Man, New Tests At YIVO

The position of executive director of the YIVO Institute of Jewish Research is not one Jonathan Brent sought out.

For almost 20 years Brent had been the director of Yale University Press, overseeing the publication of major academic texts while writing his own well-received books. And at 59, he thought he was peering at the sunset of his career, not at a new beginning. So when a board member at YIVO asked Brent to consider the post last year — after its longtime director, Carl Rheins, fell ill, and the recession led to significant layoffs and the derailing of a controversial merger with New York University — Brent needed some convincing.

“I was coming off the train and thinking, ‘My goodness, do I really want to be the head of a library, an archive? What’s there to do?’” Brent recounted, describing a visit he made to YIVO last year from his home in New Haven, Conn. He was sitting in his new office last week amid still-unpacked boxes, just four days on the job. “The truth of the matter is, I really didn’t know much about it.”

That changed quickly. Though when he was at Yale University Press, he often published books in conjunction with the institute, he had little firsthand knowledge of its archives, one of the largest collections of Eastern European Jewish materials in the world. But after his first tour of YIVO he saw endless opportunities: organizing symposia with the leading scholars, hosting public lectures, digitizing the entire catalogue.

Brent plopped down YIVO’s catalogue on a table and rattled off highlights from the collection. With each random flip of the page, his voice rose with excitement: “Hand-written letters by Freud! … Einstein! … TROTSKY! … Manuscripts by Isaac Babel! … Sheet music by Gershwin, Bernstein!”

Brent is clearly impassioned about the rich materials he oversees, but nonetheless he enters an institution beset by controversy. In 2007, New York University began plans to merge with the financially strapped Center for Jewish History on West 16th Street, which was formed in 2000 and is made up of five independent institutions: the Leo Baeck Institute, the American Jewish Historical Society, the American Sephardi Federation, the Yeshiva University Museum and YIVO.

But the plan fell through last fall when an unidentified donor, who had pledged the bulk of a proposed $90 million endowment, pulled out amid the recession. People involved with the merger say that the merger would have gone through earlier had scholars not publicly criticized the deal, stalling it into the fall when the economy drastically worsened.

“Had we moved more quickly, we might not have lost the money,” said Lawrence Schiffman, a Talmudic scholar at NYU who chairs the Judaic studies department. He was the lead negotiator for the university and says that if the money comes through again, the university would resuscitate the plan. “It’s on our permanent radar list,” said Schiffman.

Bruce Slovin, the chairman of the board for the Center for Jewish History as well as for YIVO, concurred: “We’re ready to one day start renewing negotiations,” he said.

Scholars still worry that NYU would be able to claim ownership of all the archives, potentially putting the contents at risk since the university’s priorities are not the same as the independent institutions that now own them. “It wouldn’t be a merger, but a takeover,” said Jerome Chanes, a sociologist and frequent commentator on the Jewish community.

Like other critics, he acknowledged that a merger might assuage some of the problems that are often cited when someone mentions the Center for Jewish History — an unclear mission, a lack of integration among its constituent organizations, frequent budget deficits. But Chanes conceded that each organization is still doing fine. “Each one, in its own way, does its job.”

Proponents of the merger say the university has no interest in owning the materials, which is why a separate endowment would be created for the new center. The endowment would also protect the center from economic instability in the future.

“I think there was a lot of misinformation, of conspiracy theory going on,” said Hasia Diner, another professor in NYU’s Judaic Studies department and director of the Goldstein-Goren Center for American Jewish History.

If critics are worried that some unknown financial catastrophe in the future might put pressure on NYU to sell or discard materials, they need only look to the present: “YIVO has furloughed workers,” Diner said. “NYU does not.”

The appointment of Brent appears to be part of an effort to re-brand the Center for Jewish History as a whole. In the past year, all five of the center’s constituent organizations have hired new officers at high-level positions. Evan Kingsley became executive director of the American Jewish Historical Society in the summer of 2008; Jacob Wisse was named director of the Yeshiva University Museum this spring; Stan Urman has been the executive director of the American Sephardi Federation since last year; Bernard Blum became the new board president of the Leo Baeck Institute in June; and this month, Brent took over YIVO.

The chronic deficits of the Center for Jewish History, whose finances are independent from the smaller organizations, were finally reversed last year, too. The nearly $700,000 surplus in 2008 came from a combination of significant cutbacks and increased revenue. Total revenue for 2008 stood at $7.9 million, compared to $6.7 million in 2007. And expenses were down to $7.2 million for 2008, compared to $9.4 million in 2007. “The organization today is significantly different from the one of yesterday,” said Michael Glickman, the chief operating officer of the Center for Jewish History.

While YIVO’s financial health is closely connected to the Center for Jewish History’s — with Slovin being the chairman of both boards and YIVO being the center’s largest organization — YIVO has its own set of challenges. The Forward reported in February that three members of YIVO’s board resigned after they failed to oust Slovin, who they believed had a conflict of interest as the head of both YIVO and its umbrella organization, the Center for Jewish History. (Slovin’s tenure has been mired in controversy over what some consider his brusque management style.) In addition, the recession led to layoffs of five YIVO employees this year, and a $500,000 budget deficit has plagued YIVO for both 2006 and 2007, the last year for which figures are available.

When asked what one of his biggest obstacles will be as director, Brent did not hesitate to answer: “Raising money is a big challenge.” But he is confident the he can convince donors that YIVO’s assets make it integral to Jewish life. A personal encounter that drove the message home for him came when he looked through the archives of Isaac Babel.

Before Babel became a major author, he fought in the Red Army, chronicling its campaigns in his personal diary. YIVO holds the parts of those writings that describe fighting in the Ukrainian city of Zhytomyr, written in 1920. Attached to the materials is a picture taken separately, in 1905, which shows dead Jews, lined up around a synagogue where they had just been murdered. One of Brent’s relatives died in that pogrom, so he knows one of the dead bodies must carry his blood. “I guarantee anyone with Eastern European heritage will feel a connection to these archives,” he said.

Outside observers say Brent brings important connections to YIVO, too. He has wide respect among scholars. He holds a doctorate in history from the University of Chicago, home to one of the nation’s top history programs, and has published important works of his own, including “Stalin’s Last Stand: The Plot Against Jewish Doctors, 1948-1953,” co-authored with Vladimir Naumov and published in 2003 by HarperCollins. He is perhaps most well known for founding the “Annals of Communism” series in 1991, which continues to publish declassified materials from the Soviet archives and remains integral to the field of Russian history.

And late last year, Yale University Press and YIVO co-published one of the first projects Brent signed on when he began his Yale tenure in 1991: an expanded edition of Max Weinrich’s “History of the Yiddish Language,” which Harold Bloom described in the New York Review of Books as “a masterpiece” and “superb.”

Commenting on the odd timing — the first book he ever signed up at Yale was just now published by his new employee — Brent said: “Maybe that’s a sign my time has come full circle.”

Brent has also made lasting relationships with many scholars, which could lead to high-profile lectures, conferences, and splashy fundraising campaigns, said Jonathan Sarna, a prominent scholar at Brandeis University. Sarna’s National Jewish Book Award-winning text “American Judaism: A History” was published by Yale University Press in 2004, and Sarna said that Brent “has made it his business to get to know the writers” whom the press publishes. He added that hiring a trained scholar might be intended to send a message to critics of the NYU merger. “Clearly, you’re making a statement of your priorities.” That is, the archives are integral to YIVO.

Brent emphasized that his main priorities were to look after the financial health and cultural prominence of YIVO alone. To that end, he would like to start a $50 million fundraising campaign to create an endowment for YIVO, but like the heads of sister organizations at the Center for Jewish History, he said he would be open to future discussions with NYU.

“I think if someone were to revive the NYU issue again, it would merit consideration,” he said.

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