Meet the President: Dr. Paul Finkleman Brings Passion and Energy to Gratz

Dr. Paul Finkelman was a child when he first encountered the intersection of civil rights and education. 

The U.S. was still grappling with the aftermath of WWII when Finkelman’s parents moved from New York City to Watertown, N.Y., a small town near the Canadian border, where his father sold kitchen equipment. Neither of Finkelman’s parents had a college education, but they dreamed of sending their three children to college.

“When I was 11 or 12, there was a vote in my county about whether to increase sales tax to establish a community college,” Finkelman said. “It failed by about 30 votes. I remember my mother literally crying when the results came through. At that time, going to college didn’t seem possible unless there was a local, state supported school.”

Yet Finkelman did go to college. He won a full scholarship to Syracuse University, where he majored in American studies and discovered a passion for historical research and civil rights. He went on to earn his master’s and Ph.D. in American history from the University of Chicago.

Now an internationally renowned legal historian, Finkelman is an expert in American Jewish history, religious liberty, separation of church and state, constitutional law, slavery and race, and legal issues surrounding baseball. This love for academia and civil rights also led him to Gratz College, where he was named president in November.

“Some of this interest stemmed from the world I grew up in,” Finkelman said. “I wanted to know how social change took place. I grew up watching the civil rights movement unfold, watching on TV as kids were thrown through the streets by a water hose. All of this had an effect on me. Growing up in a post-Holocaust world, I knew that what happened to civil rights demonstrators in the south was not all that dissimilar to the treatment of Jews in Europe. My grandmother, for example, had a scar on her face from a rock that hit her during a pogrom.”

The small community where he grew up also formed Finkelman’s Jewish identity and his passion to use the lessons of history to help heal the world. As a child, he experienced muted antisemitism, and as a teen during the 1967 Six-Day War, he wrote letters to the editor at the Watertown Daily Times, advocating for Israel’s right to defend itself.

“It seemed probable, at least at the beginning of the war, that the combined forces of the Arab world would overrun Israel and Israel would cease to exist as a country,” he said. “That was a formative moment for a generation of Jews. In part, I think Jewish identity is created by the forces that reject you, but another part stands for equality and freedom. It’s about tikkun olam, or repairing the world. You can’t repair the world unless you know what damage has been done.”

Lance Sussman, senior rabbi at Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel and vice chairman of the Gratz College Board of Governors, said the college went through an exhaustive search process to find its eleventh president. Appointing Finkelman to the post signals a departure from tradition, Sussman said. Instead of a lengthy career in administration, Finkelman comes from academia. 

“What was most important to me was that Dr. Finkelman is a seasoned scholar who has worked at many prestigious universities and brings to Gratz an existing network of scholars,” Sussman said. “He is a prolific legal historian with a very rich background in terms of scholarship and knowledge of higher education. Simply put, he makes Gratz a more important school.”

Finkelman has held positions at universities around the world, including the University of Ottawa, Harvard Law School and Duke Law School. He has taught and lectured in Israel, all over Europe, and in China and Japan.  He has published more than 200 scholarly articles and 50 books—including one that just hit bookshelves this year. 

Supreme Injustice: Slavery in the Nation’s Highest Court, was just published by Harvard University Press. It covers the personal and professional lives of three Supreme Court justices who upheld the institution of slavery. “I am a scholar of constitutional law and of slavery, and I’ve spent my whole life studying both subjects,” Finkelman said. “But my scholarship also ties in to the American Jewish experience. It’s all about how people at the bottom of the heap get treated and how America implements its claims of fundamental justice.  I have written a number of articles on American Jewish history and the connection between Jews and American law.”
Finkelman served as an expert witness against Roy Moore, then chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court in the infamous 2002 “Ten Commandments case.” There, he spent more than five hours arguing that a Ten Commandments monument in the Alabama Supreme Court building violated the Constitution. 

Finkelman also was an expert witness for the plaintiff in Popov v. Hayashi, the 2002 case to determine who owned Barry Bond’s 73rd home run ball. Additionally, he has been part of amicus curie briefs for cases related to gay marriage, affirmative action and the separation of church and state. His legal scholarship has been cited in four U.S. Supreme Court decisions. 

But Finkelman’s true passion is education, which he calls “the key to human progress.”

“For individuals, it’s sometimes the key to a better job, to a better lifestyle, but it’s also a key to a better understanding of the world you live in,” he said. “Education is, in a sense, a liberating force for people. It liberates them to go beyond the world in which they grew up.” 

This is especially important for an institution like Gratz, which recently launched the world’s first online Ph.D. program in Holocaust and Genocide Studies. Gratz is the oldest Jewish college in the United States, designed to support Jewish culture, ideas and knowledge, but its mission goes beyond Jewish education, Finkelman said.

“Gratz is a Jewish college, but we are not sectarian in who we teach,” he said. “Our goal is to teach about a culture and philosophy and an approach to learning and approach to society. We are not faith-based, but we are rooted intellectually and philosophically in Jewish culture, Jewish history, and Jewish values.  That’s what Gratz has been for 125 years and that should be expanded and preserved.”