Like many colleagues in Jewish Studies, I hold a named position at the university. My e-mail signature reminds me every day that members of the Jewish community donated incredibly large sums of money so that I can have my job. While technically my title only means that the funds will always be there for my field of study, I assume that the named chair also suggests some level of responsibility to the Jewish community.
Jewish Studies would not be where it is today without the generosity of North American Jewish donors. They are the reason that scholars can indulge in discovering the details of Jewish lives in eastern Europe of the nineteenth century, study, and teach Yiddish language (which, some people say, survives in a secular Jewish world largely because of academia), and scrutinize Jewish philosophy. If not for the support of the community, Jewish Studies outside of Israel would probably be reduced to the fields of the Bible, the ArabIsraeli conflict, and maybe the Holocaust. (And even then, these subjects would not be taught at today's scope.) That is why I fight my initial inclination to dismiss any community responsibility. Instead I think about the ways to give back. Jewish scholars are blessed with an audience outside of their universities that is excited to hear about their work. We are invited to speak at synagogues, community centers, and book clubs. Community members come to the conferences that we organize. Local Jewish newspapers are eager to review and promote our books. Not many scholars in the humanities have a chance of getting detailed (sometimes, too detailed) feedback to their ideas outside of the ivory tower and their immediate family. Giving back, thus, is our privilege, not only our responsibility.If we are lucky (and smart enough), we might even have a chance to influence the way the Jewish community understands itself and its politics. Surely, our audience might disagree or sometimes even get angry with rather than inspired by us. But it is a responsibility of a Jewish Studies scholar to not give up trying.