This press release was originally published by Indiana University HERE.
Alvin Rosenfeld, founder of the Borns Jewish Studies Program and the Institute for the Study of Contemporary Antisemitism at Indiana University Bloomington, will be honored as a Hoosier Jewish Legend in the Indiana Jewish Historical Society’s Hall of Fame on Aug. 27 in Indianapolis.
The award recognizes those who have had a significant and lasting impact on their profession, faith-based and/or secular community, and the legacy of the role of the Jewish community in Indiana’s continuing story.
“Alvin embodies the phrase ‘Never Again’ and has devoted his life’s work to combattng antisemitic and anti-Israel actions locally and globally,” wrote Emily Berman Pevnick, an IU alumna who was one of several people to nominate Rosenfeld for the award.
Rosenfeld has spent more than 55 years at IU, where he serves as the Irving M. Glazer Chair of Jewish Studies, director of the Institute for the Study of Contemporary Antisemitism and professor of English. But he never intended to become a world-renowned scholar of Jewish studies and antisemitism when he first came to Bloomington.
Rosefeld grew up in a working-class neighborhood in Philadelphia, surrounded by immigrant families from a variety of backgrounds. His parents came to the United States from present-day Ukraine knowing no English and with few skills. His father sold fruits and vegetables from a pushcart on the streets of Philadelphia while his mother worked in a factory.
While his parents didn’t complete high school themselves, they instilled one message in their three sons: America could be a very good country for them if they got an education.
“My parents were thoroughly decent people who instilled in us a very good moral sense of how to live a good life and what it meant to succeed,” Rosenfeld said.
Rosenfeld graduated with a Ph.D. from Brown University in 1967, where he wrote his doctoral dissertation on Walt Whitman and Ralph Waldo Emerson. He came to IU the following year as an assistant professor of English with a special focus on modern poetry. Rosenfeld loved the work and found early success with book publishing, but his professional path changed when he started reading the work of Holocaust survivor and Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel.
“It just hit me hard,” Rosenfeld said. “I grew up with little knowledge of the Old Country. From photographs in our house, I did know there was family in Europe whom I had never met. I was eager to get to know those people, but whenever I would ask about them, there was silence.
“There was very little discussion, if any, about their fate, why they didn’t come to America. As I began snooping into those things, I discovered they were among the millions of Jews who had been murdered.”
His family’s history and the influence of writers like Wiesel inspired Rosenfeld to turn his focus to Holocaust literature. At IU, he offered one of the first college courses in the country on the topic. He also worked with faculty colleagues to propose what is now the Borns Jewish Studies Program at IU, which remains one of the oldest and most vibrant programs of its kind in the country.
“I’ll be forever grateful to IU for allowing me the latitude to develop in new ways,” Rosenfeld said. “Serious study of the Holocaust was one of those ways. I never expected, however, to also have to focus on post-Holocaust antisemitism — largely because I thought the scandal of the Holocaust was so great that most people would be ashamed to voice antisemitic sentiments, let alone carry out brutal attacks against Jews. I was simply wrong.”
In 2009, Rosenfeld founded the Institute for the Study of Contemporary Antisemitism at IU, which offers courses, lectures and publications focused on present-day animosity toward Jews. He has become a world-renowned expert on antisemitism — giving lectures around the world, publishing extensively on the topic and providing input to the Biden administration as it developed the country’s first National Strategy to Combat Antisemitism.
While on sabbatical this year, Rosenfeld is working on his 14th book, focused on contemporary antisemitism. He also hopes to write a book on Primo Levi, a Holocaust survivor and author who has deeply influenced Rosenfeld’s scholarship.
“I believe that we’re put on this earth for a purpose,” he said. “And I don’t have any trouble waking up in the morning knowing what my purpose is. The meaning of my life is really very much involved in the work I do. Anything I can do to open people’s eyes to the threats before us, I will do.”
Rosenfeld recently turned 85. “May you live to be 120” is a traditional Jewish blessing often exchanged on birthdays. According to the Bible, Moses was 120 when he died.
“So, I still have 35 years to go,” Rosenfeld jokes. “Will I make it to 120? Doubtful. But I’ll keep working as long as I can and do what I can do to educate people about the costs of unrestrained hatred. They are perilously high.”