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Jerry Kutnick ז"ל – In Memoriam 1941-2021

Jerry Kutnick (Jerome; in Hebrew: ידידיה) was a gifted and ardent teacher, an assiduous and clear-sighted scholar, and a talented and innovative college administrator.  An esteemed colleague and a beloved co-worker, he is greatly missed.  

Jerry was an associate professor of Jewish history at Gratz College, teaching there for almost thirty years.  From 1984 until 2000, he was also the director of the Netzky Division of Continuing Education at Gratz and he also headed Gratz’s Harry Stern Family Institute for Israel Studies; he was then Dean of the College from 2000 until his retirement in 2012.  Before coming to Gratz, Jerry was an assistant professor of Jewish history at McGill University, where he also headed a Jewish teacher training program, and he also taught courses at nearby Concordia University.  

Jerry was a modest man who did not always take full credit for his accomplishments, but he laid the crucial groundwork for the creation of Gratz’s online program.  He also worked to open Gratz to non-Jewish students and faculty, and to make Gratz a center for teacher training for public schools.   Gratz College as it exists today is in large part Dr. Kutnick’s creation.

Jerry had a complicated blend of idealism and skepticism.  He would sometimes say to members of the faculty or staff, half-ironically, half-seriously, “You are doing this for the Jewish people.” The phrase was meant to echo, in a half-mocking way, Jerry’s own early years as a Labor Zionist, and the ideology of חלוציות (“pioneering”), self-sacrifice, and Jewish nationalism.  It was Jerry’s general opinion that Jews, and indeed most people, often exaggerate their high-minded values, and that people of all types quite reliably pursue their perceived self-interest.  But Jerry was also well aware that the Gratz staff and faculty, himself included, were indeed quite devoted to the cause of Jewish education.  

Jerry was born in 1941 in Detroit in a family that was deeply committed to Labor Zionism.  Eventually, two of his siblings would move to Israel and join kibbutzim there.  Jerry moved to Israel during his college years, and earned his BA and MA in modern history at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, studying with historians such as Joshua Prawer and Jacob Talmon.  He also earned a teacher’s certificate from the Hebrew University School of Education.  

Jerry did not stay in Israel, however.  He returned to the United States and earned a PhD in Jewish history at Brandeis University, studying with Ben Halpern and others.  His dissertation, based on archival research, focused on Felix Warburg, a wealthy philanthropist who was one of the leaders of American Jewry in the 1920’s and 1930’s, and more especially on Warburg’s paradoxical role within the Jewish Agency, the leading Zionist organization of the period.  Warburg was not a Zionist and his efforts on behalf of the Jews of Palestine, Dr. Kutnick argued, were made possible by suppressing his ideological disagreements with Zionism in the interests of his philanthropic goals.

Jerry was an irrepressible teacher, a person who loved teaching, and a natural teacher.  He found teaching moments even during day to day conversations. After he retired from academia, he continued teaching as a docent for the Philadelphia Museum of Art. He was a conscious and reflective educator, and together with Diane King, he pioneered a problem-centered approach to teaching Jewish history.  Not content with lecturing to students, he engaged them in together facing and thinking through the difficult choices that faced Jews in the medieval and modern period, as well as the interpretive puzzles that this history poses to contemporary students.   

Just as he generally took any opportunity to teach, so he rarely missed an opportunity to develop an argument. In the halls of the Gratz College building, one could often hear Jerry arguing, either in English or in Hebrew, sometimes about administrative matters, sometimes about politics or history, and often about philosophical questions.  Jerry had a running argument about values, for example, with Dr. Saul Wachs: Is there a distinctive set of Jewish values (Wachs) or are humane values by definition universal (Kutnick) and only expressed differently in different cultures and religions?  

Jerry was also a brilliant, creative, and pragmatic administrator, deeply loved by the staff with whom he worked.  He recruited a series of very talented and devoted staff members, mostly Jewish women.  He worked tirelessly.  He possessed an instinct for the special talents that each staff member possessed, and he gave each one a great deal of freedom, encouraged them to make use of their particular talents, and supported them within the institution.  

Together with other members and the administration, Jerry moved Gratz online, first partially and then completely.  He helped create Gratz’s online MA program in Holocaust and Genocide Studies, and earlier he helped found Gratz’s annual Holocaust Teach-In, now the Tuzman Memorial Holocaust Teach-In.  Dr. Kutnick’s outreach to RTC (the Regional Training Center), a for-profit teacher training center, brought them gradually within Gratz’s orbit.  Funds from the RTC partnership were a crucial part of Gratz’s budget for a number of years.  Gratz’s relationship with RTC also led shortly to the creation of Gratz’s MAEd program.  All of these changes taken together led to a major shift in Gratz’s character as an institution, no longer a Jewish college run by and for the Philadelphia Jews, but a college with both Jewish and non-Jewish students, some in the Philadelphia region, but others nation-wide and even world-wide.

Jerry also created a series of educational travel programs for Gratz, and he himself led multiple trips to China and to Cuba, focused partly on the history of the Jewish communities in each of those countries.  He encouraged the nascent field of Jewish studies in China, inviting the leading Chinese scholar of Jewish studies, Xu Xin, to speak at Gratz, and himself teaching in Xu Xin’s program at Nanjing University.

As a scholar, Dr. Kutnick’s central and guiding value was his honesty.  He was an expert on American Zionism and the relation of American Jews to Israel, and also on the history of Jewish education in the United States and Canada.  He authored a number of excellent articles in these fields, including a definitive article on the history of Gratz College. . Jerry had an eye for the irony of history, which often leads individuals, and even groups or institutions, to serve goals that are distant from their original purposes.  Jerry’s career took place against a backdrop of major changes both in Israel and in American Jewry, and in the relation between the two. Jerry felt that it was his task to help understand those changes clear-sightedly and also to help navigate them.  He was well aware of the biases that historians bring to their work, but he believed in the promise of academic Jewish studies, which is to hold up a true mirror to the Jewish people, and to warn them away from mythological concepts of themselves.  

Jerry leaves a wife, Wendy, and two children, Doron and Alix, as well as three step-children, Uri, Meira and Jennie, and five grandchildren.

May Jerry’s memory be a blessing.  יהי זכרו ברוך.

 

- Dr. Joseph M. Davis