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Targum Shlishi Announces Recipients of 2010 Grants for Dissertations in Jewish Studies

May 4, 2010 – Fifteen doctoral students from the United States and Israel have received grants from Targum Shlishi to support research for their dissertations on subjects related to Jewish Studies. Ranging from ancient to contemporary times, their projects include studies of Jewish theology, literature, political thought, and education, as well as the histories of particular Jewish communities.

More than one hundred students applied for grants this year, more than doubling the number of applicants received in any of the first three years in which the foundation offered support for dissertation research. In response, this year the Targum Shlishi offered, for the first time, two different levels of support: four grants of $2,500 and eleven of $1,000. “The number of strong proposals we received this year was extraordinary and attests to the vigor and diversity of Jewish Studies across a number of disciplines,” notes Judith Dach, Ph.D., coordinator of Targum Shlishi’s dissertation awards. “We believed it was important to respond to this fact by expanding the number of projects we supported, and offering some grants of smaller sums enabled us to do just that.”

Targum Shlishi’s dissertation grants are available to doctoral students whose dissertation research is related to Judaic Studies. The call for applications is announced via e-mail in the fall – to sign up for the Targum Shlishi e-mail announcements, go to the foundation’s website.

“In awarding these grants for four years now, we’ve learned that there is an exceptional amount of quality research being done in Jewish Studies in many universities around the globe,” says Dach. “We feel it is critical to support these efforts. A further by-product of our grant support is enabling more people to be aware of this research so that more networking and sharing of ideas can take place.”

The awardees receiving grants of $2,500 are:

Erin Leib Smokler, God in the Ruins: Jewish Theology in the Holocaust, University of Chicago (Committee on Social Thought) 

The mass extermination six million Jews during the Holocaust produced a rupture in Jewish thought, demanding new explanations of the nature of evil and new theodicies (justifications for the ways of God). While the work of post-1945 theologians and philosophers who tackled these issues is well-known, much less is known about religious and philosophical inquiry conducted during the very years of the Holocaust. Erin Smokler’s dissertation fills this void. She examines writings in Hebrew and Yiddish that demonstrate how believers sought to understand the catastrophe that was befalling them by relying on traditional Jewish theodical paradigms derived from the Bible and the Talmud. The early stages of her research suggest that the inherited models began to break down during the Holocaust itself, and that the rupture in Jewish theology was initiated by these traditional thinkers.

Smokler graduated from Harvard University in 2001 with a B.A. in Philosophy and the Comparative Study of Religion. She earned her M.A. from the University of Chicago’s Committee on Social Thought in 2008 and is currently enrolled in its Ph.D. program. Her book reviews have appeared in The New Republic, The New York Times Book Review, The New York Sun, The New York Jewish Week, and The Jerusalem Report. She teaches Jewish Philosophy courses at the Drisha Institute for Jewish Education in New York City.

Rena N. Lauer, Vitality on the Margins: A Notarial Case Study of Jews in Venetian Crete, 1300-1500, Harvard University (Department of History)

The large but little-studied Jewish population of Crete during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries is the subject of Rena Lauer’s dissertation. By examining this community through the lens of notarial documents—such as contracts, wills, and bills of sale—Lauer develops a detailed account of the place of Jews in the Venetian colony’s social and economic life. These documents recorded the varied forms of commerce and cooperation that tied Jews to Christians on the island, enabling Lauer to contest the view—built by historians on the basis of diplomatic and state records—of Jews in Medieval Europe as a hated and socially isolated minority. Lauer’s fellowship will allow her to conduct research, including both close reading of the documents and statistical analysis of their content, in the State Archives of Venice.

Rena Lauer attended Jewish Orthodox day schools and the seminary Midreshet Lindenbaum in Israel before attending Princeton University, where she began her research on Medieval Jewish communities. Her undergraduate thesis, about the “Second Controversy of Paris,” won awards as the best thesis in both Judaic Studies and Medieval Studies. After studying Latin and ancient Greek at the University of Pennsylvania, Lauer entered the Ph.D. program in History at Harvard University, where her studies have addressed a range of issues relating to language and minority identity. She earned her M.A. in 2009.

Geoffrey Claussen, Exploring the Moral Vision of Rabbi Simhah Zissel (Broida) Ziv (1824-1898), Jewish Theological Seminary (Department of Jewish Thought)

Rabbi Simhah Zissel (Broida) Ziv (1824-1898) was one of the early leaders of the Lithuania-based Musar movement, which emerged in the mid-nineteenth century and attempted to put concerns about moral character at the center of Jewish life. Geoffrey Claussen’s dissertation considers Simhah Zissel’s writings on moral development and individual virtue, which were notable for their openness to the insights of non-Jewish philosophy. Claussen ties Simhah Zissel’s ideas to medieval and modern Jewish thinkers, while also considering them in light of Western theories of virtue, from Aristotle (whom Simhah Zissel read in Hebrew translation) to the contemporary field of “virtue ethics.” How we might or might not learn from Simhah Zissel’s thought in developing Jewish ethics today is a subject that Claussen addresses throughout his dissertation.

Geoffrey Claussen is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Jewish Thought at the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) in New York. He was ordained as a rabbi and received an M.A. in Jewish Philosophy at JTS as well. In 2009­-10 he was a Doctoral Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia. His first published article, “God and Suffering in Heschel’s Torah Min Ha-Shamayim,” will be printed in the upcoming issue of the journal, Conservative Judaism.

Jacob Ari Labendz, Jews and the State in Communist Central Europe: Czechoslovakia and Its Neighbors, 1945-1989, Washington University in St. Louis (History Department)

Jacob Ari Labendz examines the trajectory of post-1945 Central European Jewry by focusing on the case of Czechoslovakia. Based on research in government and Jewish community archives, as well as oral testimonies from Czechoslovak Jews and state officials, Labendz examines the relationship between Jews and the Communist state in Czechoslovakia as a field of negotiation among competing agencies and competing ethnic, religious, and political discourses. This dissertation attempts to transcend the notion of a stark division between Jews and the state, by showing how the Jewish community was intertwined with both government agencies and the Communist Party.

A doctoral candidate in History at Washington University in St. Louis, Jacob Ari Labendz received his B.A. in 2000 from Brandeis University. He is a Wexner Graduate Fellow, a Washington University Frankel Fellow, and was awarded a Washington University International & Area Studies Pre-Dissertation Fellowship. He has held two positions with CET Academic Programs in Prague, and currently serves on the Academic Advisory Board for CET’s Jewish Studies in Prague study-abroad program.

The awardees receiving $1000 grants are:

Lilach Ashoulin, Offspring of Righteous Among the Nations: The Place and Meaning of the Story of Rescuers of Jews during the Holocaust in the Lives of their Adult Offspring, University of Haifa (Department of Counseling and Human Development)

Natalie Belsky, Precarious Survival: Soviet Jewish Life in Evacuation and the Tumultuous Return, 1941-1949, University of Chicago (Department of History)

Miryam Brand, At the Entrance Sin is Crouching: The Source of Sin and Its Nature as Portrayed in Jewish Texts of Antiquity, New York University (Skirball Department of Hebrew and Judaic Studies)

Arie Dubnov, Between Zionist and Liberalism: Isaiah Berlin and the Dilemma of the Jewish Liberal Intellectual, Hebrew University (History Department)

Amir Engel, Gershom Scholem: In Search of the origin of Jewish Politics, Stanford University (Department of German Studies)

Ella Florsheim, The Revival of Yiddish Culture in the Displaced Persons Camps in Germany through the Prism of Holocaust Survivors’ Newspapers, Hebrew University (Yiddish Department)

Danna Livstone, Jewish Parents and Religious School: Recollections and Decisions, Jewish Theological Seminary (Department of Jewish Education),

Rachel Mincer, Minhagim Books: Middlebrow Literature of the Late Medieval Period, Jewish Theological Seminary (History Department)

Vadim Putzu, Bottled Poetry/Quencher of Hopes: Wine as a Symbol and as an Instrument between Sfedian Kabbalah and Hasidism, Hebrew Union College (Jewish Institute of Religion),

Dov Weiss, Confrontational Theology in Post-Classical Rabbinic Literature, University of Chicago (Divinity School)

Hannah Wortzman, Feminist Readings in Post-Biblical Literature: Rape Stories in Classical Antiquity, Hebrew University (Department of Jewish Thought)

About Targum Shlishi

Targum Shlishi, a Raquel and Aryeh Rubin Foundation, is dedicated to providing a range of creative solutions to problems facing Jewry today. Premised on the conviction that dynamic change and adaptation have historically been crucial to a vibrant and relevant Judaism and to the survival of its people, Targum Shlishi’s initiatives are designed to stimulate the development of new ideas and innovative strategies that will enable Jewish life, its culture, and its traditions to continue to flourish. For more information on the foundation, visit its website at

Contact: Targum Shlishi


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