Foggy Bottom event honors rabbi’s contributions to the university community.
By James Irwin
Within a few weeks of arriving at the George Washington University in 2013, Ben Vinson III began hearing stories about “a legendary professor” who made students “not only better scholars, but better people—someone who awakened imaginations and really encouraged students to be their best.”
“I asked, ‘Well, who is this guy?’” the dean of the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences said Wednesday. “And I was told, ‘You’ll know him when you see him.’ And sure enough, when I first glimpsed him, I knew this must be the legendary Max Ticktin.”
Rabbi Ticktin, a longtime member of the George Washington University faculty, was honored Wednesday at an event celebrating the creation of the Max Ticktin Professorship of Israel Studies. Created through a grant from the Morningstar Foundation, the family foundation of Susie and Michael Gelman, the position will help develop an Israel studies component of the GW’s Judaic Studies Program by developing a strong community of scholars on Israel and fostering an understanding of the history, politics, society and culture of the modern Jewish state.
“I recall having a very interesting conversation when this was under consideration with Dean Vinson, in which he explained the whole vision for this position and how it fit into the broader fabric of the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences, where we are able to bring in history and culture and contemporary politics into a vital and vibrant interchange,” George Washington President Steven Knapp said at the event. “I think a professorship of Israeli studies is a perfect instance of what we mean by that.”
Rabbi Ticktin’s longstanding career in education began at Hillel at the University of Wisconsin in 1948. He retired in June 2014 from his GW post as a professor of Hebrew in the Department of Classical and Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations.
The 93-year-old spoke briefly and eloquently Wednesday, showing off his charm and reflecting on moments that helped shape his life in education. He thanked GW for giving him the academic freedom to exercise creativity with his curriculum.
“We introduced students to language, literature and comparative literature—among other things, if they learned Hebrew well, their English was going to get better,” he said to laughter. “I was privileged to be able to have faculty, friends—including chairs of departments—who allowed me to experiment in my courses, to come up with new names. The last popular course, we gave it a grandiloquent title: “Israeli Society and Culture—Literary Perspectives.” We got an awful lot in one sentence.”
Rabbi Ticktin recruited and helped train and guide a generation of Hillel directors. He received the organization’s 85th Anniversary Alumni Award in 2008. He has been one of the most important figures in national Hillel and has been the bedrock of Judaic studies at GW for the past three decades, said Dan Schwartz, associate professor of history.
“His is a storied career of more than 65 years devoted to promoting Jewish life, education and culture on American college campuses,” Dr. Schwartz said. “But his most central legacy is as a teacher—Max has taught thousands of people.”
One of those people was Mrs. Gelman, who studied with Rabbi Ticktin for several years while taking non-degree classes in the Columbian College.
“I did it to brush up on my Hebrew, and along the way, I witnessed the special interaction that Max has with his students,” she said Wednesday. “Like so many of you, I’m the beneficiary of ‘the Max effect,’ which is namely: To know Max is to become his friend. And I really feel blessed by our friendship.”