Paul Finkelman’s parents transmitted a love of learning and history.
That passion took him into academia, where he became an expert in American history, and to his new position as Gratz College president.
Last month, the Gratz College Board of Governors appointed Finkelman to the post. He comes to Gratz with decades of experience in academia, where he has specialized in history and law, with focuses on slavery and race, religious freedom, and the separation of church and state.
Finkelman’s interest in history began when he was young. His parents moved to Watertown, N.Y., during the economic dislocation that followed World War II. His father worked as a mechanic during the war but started selling commercial refrigeration and kitchen equipment.
His parents lacked a formal education, but Finkelman recalls getting books for Chanukah, such as The Making of the President 1960 by Theodore H. White, while other children received toys.
“Had circumstances been different my father would have either been an engineer, an architect, an archaeologist or a historian,” Finkelman said. “He read history always. He was from a generation of many first-generation Jewish Americans who were very much self-taught and were consumers of books and readers of books. So was my mother. They never went to college. … They were lifelong learners.”
He grew up in a small Jewish community, which formed his Jewish identity. During the 1967 Six Day War, he wrote letters to the editor at the Watertown Daily Times about Israel’s right to defend itself. He even considered volunteering for the war effort.
“You don’t have to do anything to be Jewish in Brooklyn — you just have to be there,” Finkelman said. “Growing up where I did, it’s a choice.”
He majored in American studies at Syracuse University, then went on to obtain his master’s and Ph.D. in American history from the University of Chicago. He entered the world of academia and has held positions in universities around the world, including the University of Ottawa, University of Pittsburgh and Harvard Law School.
Lance Sussman, Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel senior rabbi and the Board of Governors vice chair who led the search for president, said Gratz went through an exhaustive search process to find the right candidate.
Sussman said Finkelman’s reputation and connections in the scholarly world will bring more talent to Gratz and raise its visibility.
“He is an accomplished scholar,” Sussman said. “He’s one of the top legal scholars in the U.S. He’s internationally known for his work in American legal history. He has a strong specialization in several areas including the separation of church and state and other issues that touch directly on the American Jewish experience.”
One of Finkelman’s proudest moments is when he served as expert witness in the Glassroth v. Moore case. He spent more than five hours arguing against then-Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore that a Ten Commandments monument at the Alabama Judicial Building violated Constitutional principles.
The crux of Finkelman’s argument was that U.S. law is not based on the Ten Commandments and that, because Jews, Catholics and Protestants number and translate the Ten Commandments differently, there is no way to write them in a religiously neutral way. The Supreme Court has cited his argument in following cases.
“I did something that was important to all Americans, but is also particularly important to Jewish Americans because I think these religious monuments are, in a sense, an attack on Jewish religious liberty,” Finkelman said.
He is also proud of the thousands of students he has taught. He regularly receives emails from former students, thanking him for enriching their lives.
Finkelman has written more than 40 books and 200 scholarly articles. About half of his writings are on civil rights and slavery. He said these issues test American values such as access to voting rights.
His latest book, Supreme Injustice: Slavery in the Nation’s Highest Court, covers the personal lives of three Supreme Court justices who upheld the institution of slavery.
“I’m interested in slavery and race because I’m Jewish,” Finkelman said. “In a sense, the American experience of slavery and race is very similar to the Jewish experience of hundreds of years in Europe.”
He has also written about American Jewish history. One example includes an essay about how Jewish settlers gained civic rights during colonial times by getting involved in public life.
Finkelman said he never would have imagined becoming a college president because the position would take away time from his writing. But the opportunity to lead a university as historic as Gratz was too much to pass up.
Besides its role as the oldest independent and pluralistic college for Jewish studies in North America, Gratz also has a program in Holocaust and genocide studies, which intrigued Finkelman.
“It’s important to see how Holocaust and genocide studies are more than just about Jews. Genocide has affected many people,” he said. “This is important because as a small group of people in a very large world, we constantly have to have alliances and allies. We have to have friends. We have to work together.”
Expanding this program, as well as others such as the master’s in Holocaust education, is one task Finkelman wants to pursue as president. In general, he wants to make Gratz a better-known university throughout the United States and the world. He is having conversations to bring more international students to the Holocaust and genocide studies program at Gratz.
Finkelman is also interested in developing a Holocaust and law program, which could address the legal issues around property that was stolen during the Holocaust, an issue that persists today. In addition, he sees potential in Gratz to hold conferences that connect Jewish American issues to modern issues, such as a conference on the boycott, divestments and sanctions (BDS) movement.
“I want [Gratz] to be a place that people turn to,” Finkelman said. “I want it be a resource for the world.”