By Stacey Dresner
HARTFORD – For years, the prestigious Maurice Greenberg Center for Judaic Studies at the University of Hartford was tucked away in a cramped, less than prestigious 1,000-square-foot office in the school’s Auerbach Hall.
In December, the Greenberg Center moved into a space in the Harry Jack Gray Center far more befitting its stature as “one of the crown jewels of the university,” as once described by University of Hartford President Emeritus Walter Harrison.
The newly renovated $1.2 million space is also more befitting Professor Richard Freund, the executive director of the Greenberg Center and archeologist extraordinaire who travels all over the world to excavate such sites as the Cave of Letters, Qumram, the Sobibor extermination camp, and even the fabled Atlantis.
“The university has taken a tremendous leap with us, to take the Greenberg Center into the 21st century,” Freund said.
On Wednesday, Jan. 24, a “soft” opening of the new Greenberg Center was held for the university community. Faculty, staff and students watched as Greenberg Center founder Arnold Greenberg and his wife, Beverly, cut the ribbon on the new center.
“The new space is really quite beautiful and represents a significant increase for us in terms of usable space,” said Arnold Greenberg, who lauded the individuals who helped make the new Greenberg Center possible – 35 years after it was created.
“We knew it would take time because space is always at a premium at a university, but we have been blessed with enormous support from all of the presidents of the university,” Greenberg said. “Without their support we couldn’t have realized as much as we have. The program and the center have been embraced by the university.”
University of Hartford President Gregory Woodward and presidents emeriti Walter Harrison and Humphrey Tonkin were on hand at the opening to show that support.
“There are hundreds of great things going on at the University of Hartford but one of the best and most shining examples is the work of the Greenberg Center,” said Woodward. “They were functioning in a less than appealing space…and with the generosity of various friends and the Greenberg family themselves, we were able to come up with a plan to raise money to make a better space.”
The new Greenberg Center is now in the space that used to house the Hartt School’s Allen Music Library.
“At the same time we were renovating our major university library system. So the music library moved over to the real library, and it opened up this great opportunity to give the Greenberg Center this prominent space both in terms of the actual physical space as well as a more desirable location where people will come across and interact with the Greenberg Center more often,” Woodward said. “What a great moment to bring that important function to a better place.”
The week before the soft opening, Dr. Freund took the Jewish Ledger on a private tour of the new Greenberg Center.
“It is amazing that we were able to transform a space like the Allen Library to a space that is so multi-use,” Freund said.
The Center is now entered through a bright front lobby with a lounge area in which students can study or socialize and a front desk manned by office coordinator Susan Gottlieb, jokingly likened by Professor Freund to Captain Kirk’s command center on the Starship Enterprise.
A large central room — the Millie and Irving Bercowetz Research and Study Library — anchors the Center. The multi-use room features several worktables designed for quiet study as well as comfy armchairs with small built-in tables just big enough for students’ laptops. One wall features a screen enabling the space to be used for film and video screenings. The room will also be used for lectures and other events.
“This is a work in progress,” Freund said as he led the informal tour. “The curator is going to transform this into, I think, a beautiful space.”
But even without the artwork and artifacts that have yet to make it to the walls and display cases, the new Center is an inviting space designed to be enjoyed by students, faculty and even the public.
“This is the point – to have people from the community seeing students, talking to students; to have a space where they can all actually meet, and feel they can discuss things,” Freund said. “It is ‘town and gown.’ That has always been the mission of the Greenberg Center – that it’s not just for the students on the campus but for the whole community.”
The “centerpiece” of the Greenberg Center, Freund says, pointing to the bookshelves lining the walls of the Bercowetz Library, are thousands of Holocaust-related books. This collection of 5,000 books in the Center’s Hatikvah Holocaust Resource Library, which was purchased and donated by the Zachs Family Foundation, is named for the Hatikvah Holocaust Center in Springfield, Mass., which used to house the books and which closed its doors in 2010. The books are already catalogued and ready to be used as resources.
“This will be a central part of the center,” agreed Avinoam Patt, the Center’s Philip D. Feltman Professor and director of the Museum of Jewish Civilization. “This is what I do — Holocaust education — and we wanted teachers to be able to come and use these resources… We now have several thousand books dedicated to the Holocaust, a whole reference section and the largest film section dedicated to Holocaust education.”
Running along one side of the main room are two back-to-back classrooms, separated from the main space by see-through glass display cases, intended to hold many of the Greenberg Center’s treasures. A mannequin clothed in the garb of a Roman gladiator stands at attention in the corner of one of the classrooms.
“I will be able to teach archeology and be able to show the students the artifacts while
I am teaching,” Freund said as he removed a small ancient scroll from one of the display cases. “I can actually take artifacts out and have students examine them. To show them that this is what it looks like. They can hold it; they can touch it. It makes a very big difference.”
On the other side of the Bercowetz Library, there are four offices for Professors Freund, Patt and the program’s Hebrew and Arabic language instructors.
Near the lobby is the Special Collections room, now earmarked for the Kostin Research Library, a private collection of more than 6,000 books written about nearly every Jewish community around the world, collected by Hartford businessman Dane Kostin.
The Center includes a Holocaust collection resource room with computer and an assortment of Holocaust videos, and a separate meeting room.
Also a part of the new Greenberg Center is the Holocaust Education Resource and Outreach Center or HERO Center, which is now a shared initiative of the Greenberg Center and the Farmington-based Voices of Hope.
Founded by businessman Alan Lazowski and the families of Holocaust survivors across the state, Voices of Hope collects personal accounts of survivors and teaches the lessons of the Holocaust through personal testimonies in classrooms and lecture halls around the state.
“We work closely together,” Patt said. “What we realized is that too often we ended up competing against each other. So we said, ‘We have the resources here, you have the outreach mission, let’s partner and work together.”
As an example, Patt mentioned a February field trip that Kingswood Oxford’s middle school students will be taking to the Greenberg Center.
“Now what we are able to do is have 150 students downstairs in Wilde Auditorium to meet with a survivor, and then we will be able to have kids visit the Resource Center and the Jewish Heritage Museum,” Patt said.
With the new Center, not only will more field trips be offered to provide education for the state’s school children, but community programs are already planned for the entire community.
“We are always trying to come up with programs that tie in with our classes and that people in the community will want to attend,” Freund said.
Programs already scheduled are “Art and Spirituality” with Siona Benjamin (a Jew raised in Bombay) on Feb. 20 in the Wilde Auditorium; Samantha Baskin and Patt on “The 75th Anniversary of the Warsaw Uprising,” on April 16 in the Center’s Bercowetz Library; and The Greenberg Center’s Annual Awards Evening on May 7.
The May 7 event, which represents the formal public opening of the new Greenberg Center to the entire community, will feature guest speaker Paula Apsell, the senior executive director of NOVA, the PBS documentary series.
But the Center’s events will not only include the academic.
With a kosher kitchen located in the back, Freund is hoping the space will also be used for more romantic engagements.
“If people say, ‘I’d like to get married at the Greenberg Center, can I do that?’ The answer is yes,” he stated. “Kosher kitchens are central because we want to have events here. I can imagine alumni coming back here to get married. It’s got all the bells and whistles.”
“This is going to be a destination,” Freund added. “When people come to Hartford they are going to want to come to the Greenberg Center.”