Mendelsohn has big plans for Kaplan Centre
Pictured: Associate Professor Adam Mendelsohn.
The former Herzlian has lived in the United States for 12 years, having been associate professor of Jewish Studies at the College of Charleston, South Carolina, and the director of a centre focused on Jews in the American South since 2008.
Mendelsohn, who majored in history and politics at UCT, “stumbled” into the field of Jewish Studies “by accident”, when completing his undergraduate degree in US. He took a course in the field and as part of the programme, did a comparative project on Jews in apartheid South Africa and in the Civil Rights Movement in the US.
“From there it really gathered momentum and I decided to do a master’s project which would be comparative; by that point I was hooked,” he recalls. A master’s degree at UCT followed, as well as a doctorate in Modern Jewish History from Brandeis University.
“Coming back to South Africa certainly wasn’t in my long-range plan,” the 36-year-old says, “but this is the position I would always have come back for. It’s at UCT, it’s in Cape Town and it’s very unusual in that it’s not just an academic position.
“The Kaplan Centre takes on the responsibility of doing research into the community – both historical and sociological – and there’s nothing quite like it in the equivalent American university positions.
“In the United States there are already 1 001 Jewish university or communal organisations which are doing research of one kind or another. Here, the Kaplan Centre seems to be the address to do that.”
Mendelsohn says it was not a hard sell to get his American wife, Andrea, to relocate. “She’s very adventurous; she lived in Ethiopia for a year, India for a year and has travelled to all sorts of other places. Ironically, when I was in the US years ago, she was a Semester Study Abroad student at UCT!”
The new director has many plans for the Kaplan Centre, some of which include continuing the projects of his predecessor, Professor Milton Shain. One of two major initiatives on the drawing board is a national survey of the Jewish community – previously done in 2005 – incorporating social attitudes towards a variety of current issues.
“The last study (reflected) a moment of great optimism in the community. (We’ll) see how things stand now 10 years later.”
The other is a national survey to gauge black South Africans’ thinking about Jews. “There have been a number of episodes where people have said disturbing things,” he explains, giving as an example the (former) leader of Wits SRC’s pro-Hitler utterances earlier this year.
“Again, this will be a snapshot of the range and potency of attitudes to Jews, how much impact BDS, reporting on Israel in the media as well as the government’s approach to Israel, have had and whether Christian-Zionism has played a role in shaping attitudes.”
Mendelsohn also envisages the Kaplan Centre serving as a think tank, initiating discussion in the community through position papers on how broader societal issues such as gay rights, animal rights, feminism, the structure of the community and philanthropy should or can affect Jewish life.