Colleagues, friends and admirers of the man widely credited as the driving force behind the establishment of a Judaic Studies program at Portland State University will honor him at a banquet Dec. 7 at Hoffman Hall, at Southwest 12th Avenue and Harrison Street on the PSU campus.
Dr. Robert Liebman has been a member of PSU's Sociology faculty since coming to Portland in 1987 from a teaching post at Princeton University in New Jersey.
"Bob really got the program going, really laid the groundwork," said Dr. Michael Weingrad, PSU's first full-time faculty member in what is now known as the Harold Schnitzer Family Program in Judaic Studies at Portland State University.
Weingrad recently succeeded Liebman as the program's academic administrator, which occasion led to the planning of the forthcoming banquet to honor Liebman. The honor comes just as the PSU Faculty Senate approved the creation of a minor in Judaic Studies.
Approximately 200 students a year currently enroll in Judaic Studies and Hebrew courses at PSU, a number that has grown steadily since the inauguration of the program.
While the earliest germination of a Judaic Studies program at PSU might be traced to the creation of the Middle East Studies Center there in 1958 or to any of several other events or course offerings at the school involving, at different times, Rabbi Joshua Stampfer, Nathan Cogan and Dina Feuer between then and 1998, Liebman singled out an initiative by Libby and Richard Solomon in 1998 as a key event.
1998 was the jubilee year of the modern state of Israel. On that occasion, what Liebman termed "a significant gift from Libby and Dick Solomon" enabled the school to offer two one-time Judaic Studies courses and three lectures.
It was at about this same time that the announcement was made of the creation of the Harold Schnitzer Family Program in Judaic Studies at the University of Oregon in Eugene.
Determined that Judaic Studies should also be a presence at the state's largest university in Portland, Liebman, who by this time had been named to a statewide committee on Judaic Studies, proposed a team-taught course on Jewish identity for PSU's 1999 summer session that would involve many of his colleagues at PSU and other schools. His request for funding was approved.
Liebman met then with Marvin Kaiser, dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at PSU, to encourage creation of a Judaic Studies program similar to the one at UO.
That summer's Judaic Studies course was led by more than 15 faculty members, community leaders and scholars. It attracted about 100 participants, including 15 who enrolled for academic credit.
Liebman called it "a tryout of how the program might take shape" in Portland.
It was after this program, said Liebman, that Portland's Harold Schnitzer family convened a meeting with representatives of PSU, Reed College and Lewis and Clark College to explore a Judaic Studies program here. The school officials called for a statewide planning meeting to focus on Judaic Studies.
The first planning meeting took place in July of 2000 at Willamette University in Salem and attracted 60 scholars and academicians.
"We had sessions on curriculum, library, research needs and campus-community collaboration," said Liebman.
At that point, he added, "There seemed to be an interest in having a statewide Judaic studies collaboration."
In the summer of 2001 the Oregon School of Judaic Studies was launched on the PSU campus. Several courses were offered, involving faculty from campuses in Oregon, the East Coast and Israel.
The logistics of an inter-campus program proved vexing.
"It became clear it would be hard to have students move between campuses, with different schedules, costs and student mix," said Liebman.
What was needed in Portland was a single-campus-based program like that in Eugene.
Then, in 2002, the Harold and Arlene Schnitzer CARE Foundation stepped forward with a $1 million challenge grant that enabled PSU to move forward with its own Judaic Studies program.
At the time the grant was announced, Rabbi Stampfer said, "The Harold Schnitzer Family Program in Judaic Studies at Portland State University will play a major role in transforming the educational and cultural life of our entire community. … It is truly a dream coming true."
Of Liebman's contribution to the program, Stampfer said, "Bob was persistent, energetic. He never gave up."
He added, "In order for the project to succeed, it had to have a faculty member driving it. He was that person … He was the little engine that could."
The Schnitzer challenge grant made it possible for the school to hire Weingrad in 2004. He came to Portland in January 2005 from Boston where he had been a fellow at Harvard University's Center for Jewish Studies.
Funds toward the challenge grant are still being raised. When the challenge is fulfilled the $2 million endowment will endow two Judaic Studies professors. PSU has agreed to hire two additional professors at that time in order to create a fully-staffed program.
Now, after nearly two years in Portland and succeeding Liebman as the program's academic administrator, Weingrad said of Liebman, "He showed the university how Judaic Studies should be a part of its mission."
He credited Liebman's style for generating excitement about the program, building partnerships and getting a lot done.
"He projects a warmth that's really genuine," said Weingrad. "He has a big-tent philosophy; he judges success by the number of people he can get involved."
The banquet honoring Liebman is open to all. Reservations are required. RSVP to Aaron Pearlman at 503-725-8449 or by e-mail to email@example.com.
A light dinner and dessert will be served at $25 per person.
Jack "Yankl" Falk and Friends will perform klezmer music.
There will be a mitzvah moment for those who can help support Judaic Studies at PSU.