New center at Queens will focus on social justice, Holocaust education

Pamela Davies, president of Queens University of Charlotte, left; Stan Greenspon; and Rabbi Judy Schindler.
Pamela Davies, president of Queens University of Charlotte, left; Stan Greenspon; and Rabbi Judy Schindler. COURTESY OF QUEENS UNIVERSITY OF CHARLOTTE

A new center designed to promote social justice advocacy and link the lessons of the Holocaust to today’s human rights issues will open next year at Queens University of Charlotte, with Rabbi Judy Schindler as its director.

The Stan Greenspon Center for Peace and Social Justice – named for the North Carolina-based Jewish philanthropist who’s funding what he calls “the culmination of a dream” – will also engage Queens students and the Charlotte community in Jewish studies and work to build interfaith understanding at the school and beyond.

Among the initiatives planned for the new center, which will have a $2 million endowment: a digital library to make Holocaust and Jewish resources available to teachers and others across the state.

Schindler, 49, who has led the Carolinas’ largest synagogue since 2003, announced early this year that she would leave the post of senior rabbi at Charlotte’s Temple Beth El in July 2016. A month later, she’s scheduled to join the faculty at Queens, where she’ll not only run the Greenspon Center but also teach classes and help grow the university’s budding Jewish studies program.

Named for a great-aunt who was murdered by the Nazis at the notorious Auschwitz death camp, Schindler said she will continue to be inspired by the example of her grandfather – a newspaper writer in 1930s Germany who spoke out against Hitler – as she takes up her new role.

“What’s so frightening about the Holocaust is the bystanders who said nothing,” she said. “We want to teach people – students and everyone in the community – to use their voice to create change. That would be our goal: to not only do social service, like feeding the hungry, but also move into social justice.”

Greenspon, a retired insurance broker and former president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Charlotte, has no personal connection to the Holocaust. But he said his hope is that the center will open the minds of young people and inspire them to “become proactive and engaged citizens.”

“My prayer is that similar terrible nightmares will not happen again,” said Greenspon, who lived in Charlotte for 40 years and now resides in Sunset Beach and (summers) in Boone. “And that the center’s work of social justice will change the landscape so that all races and religious groups, apart from terrorists, will be treated fairly and with respect.”

‘A national platform’

Queens University officials said housing the Greenspon Center and hiring Schindler will position the school of 2,400 students to become a leader on social justice issues, interfaith dialogue and Holocaust education.

“As a professor of Judaic studies and director of the center, Judy is going to have a national platform,” Queens President Pamela Davies told the Observer.

Lynn Morton, the university’s provost, said she knows of no other university that has anything quite like the Greenspon Center, which will officially launch on the Queens campus in the fall of 2016.

“This one, I think, is really unique because of the multiple approaches Judy has,” Morton said. “Like the Holocaust being used as an (example) of what we need to watch out for. We have so many situations in the world today where the bystander effect could (bring) trouble and probably already is. So having the courage to speak out, to make sure people know what’s going on in the world and then figure out what to do about it – that’s really different.”

Queens University of Charlotte might not at first seem like a natural home for a center focusing on Jewish and Holocaust studies: The university was founded in 1857 as a Presbyterian school and still has a covenant with the Presbyterian Church, said Davies.

“We do have weekly chapel,” the Queens president said, “but it’s not mandatory,” as it was in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s.

Schindler, who leads a Reform Jewish congregation, said having the center at a university with strong Christian roots may prove to be a plus. “It’s the perfect opportunity to broaden our dialogue,” said the rabbi, who hopes to bring other Jewish clergy to the campus to speak about such subjects as Jewish mysticism.

Provost Morton said that the center is a good fit for Queens precisely because of its Presbyterian roots.

As a Presbyterian-founded institution, she said, Queens “has always had an interest in diversity and interfaith understanding and all things Presbyterians bring to the table – (including) an intellectual approach to life.”

Queens has about 32 Muslim undergraduate students, ages 18-22, on campus. There are even fewer traditional undergraduates who are Jewish – about 20.

In the last year or so, Queens has stepped up efforts to attract more Jewish students to the urban university.

Among other things, the school reached out to six local Jewish families for guidance on how to proceed; hired its first director of Jewish life, Talli Dippold; started a Hillel (Jewish student) organization on campus; established a minor in Jewish studies; and named a new dean of admissions who last worked at the University of Rochester – where 22 percent of the student population is Jewish.

Davies said other Southern universities — Elon, Richmond and the College of Charleston – have tried various ways to attract Jewish students, and Queens studied their approaches, too.

Also, even before the Greenspon Center entered the picture, Queens had been talking with Schindler about joining the faculty as an associate professor of Jewish Studies in the Department of Philosophy and Religion.

Though the school’s Muslim population is low, it has hired Muslim professors and made prayer space available for Muslim students.

“We realized that there was a real opportunity for us to reach out to prospective Jewish students, which would ultimately benefit our student population and make us an even more diverse community,” Morton said. “One of the things we want to do for our students is teach them to model understanding and listening and dialogue so that we can come together in that sort of atmosphere … when we talk to people who are different than we are.”

‘Connected to the community’

The Greenspon Center’s menu of activities is still evolving. Schindler said she hopes it will include: the digital library for teachers of students “from middle school to millennials”; exhibits – traveling, online and on-site; speakers; trips to Eastern Europe so students can see the remains of Auschwitz and other Nazi concentration camps; an annual Charlotte Holocaust commemoration; storytelling events in Charlotte coffeehouses; and weekly blogs about human rights cases in the Carolinas and beyond.

Davies said she and others at Queens are excited about the broader community engagement that will be included in the center’s mission.

“Part of our interest at Queens has always been to be very connected to the community,” she said. “We don’t hide behind the shrub lines here. We kind of lean into the fact that we exist in this vibrant, dynamic city.”

Greenspon said he plans to establish an endowment of at least $2 million – to be managed by the Foundation for the Charlotte Jewish Community – to sustain the new center. He saluted Schindler and Dippold, Queens’ director of Jewish life, and said “with their skills and passion, I think this will be a tremendous success.”

Before deciding whether to create a center devoted to Holocaust education and social justice, Greenspon commissioned a study on what other Holocaust and human rights centers existed and what could be created in Charlotte. In January, just after Schindler gave her notice to the 1,100 families at Temple Beth El, Greenspon’s 130-page study landed on her desk.

There were months of re-crafting the plan. For Schindler, who had told her congregation she wanted more time to focus on social justice, writing and academic pursuits, the center sounded like “a beautiful thing,” she said. It would allow her to go deeper in areas she’s passionate about. For example, Schindler helped make anti-bullying documentaries for MeckMin, an interfaith group, that have won awards and inspired congregations to work in high-poverty schools.

This will be Schindler’s first teaching job at a university, though she has a master’s degree in Hebrew Letters and completed rabbinic studies – both at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.

The Greenspon Center could have possibly been housed on the campus at Shalom Park, the center of Jewish life in Charlotte and the site of Temple Beth El, Temple Israel and the Jewish Community Center.

“But to be really out in the community (at Queens) sends a powerful message,” Schindler said.

She added that she expects the city’s Jewish community to rally around the new center and the university’s push to make Jewish life a more prominent feature on campus.

“I think there will be a lot of (Jewish) calls to Queens to say, ‘How can I help? How can I get involved? This is meaningful to me.’