Fostering the Rena Costa Center’s Vision to
Make Yiddish Studies Nu Again
It all started with the late Rena Costa’s passionate belief that “If Yiddish dies, Hitler will have won, and that is one victory we must make sure he does not have.” This belief led to a meeting in her nephew Dan Gildin’s law office 33 years ago, where Rena agreed to endow a Chair in Yiddish Studies at Bar-Ilan University (BIU).
In his current law offices – Kaufman, Gildin & Robbins - in New York City, Gildin reflected on how important it is for him to keep his aunt’s vision alive. “This is the way Rena wanted to leave her mark, and it is my privilege to make sure her endowment is used to further strengthen the Center. I’m happy to say the University has done a fantastic job with this program. What started out with the hope that we would have 25 students a year has now grown into the largest Yiddish Studies program in the world, which now educates over 400 students a year in Yiddish language, literature, culture and folklore.”
Saying that the Center’s growth and impact has been “nothing short of miraculous” when compared to initial expectations, Gildin said that the Center’s ongoing success only could have happened with the leadership of several Bar-Ilan officials. First and foremost, he credited the late beloved Rabbi Emanuel Rackman, then Chancellor of BIU, for making the Center an integral part of the University’s commitment to foster Jewish Studies in all dimensions.
There are many others, too numerous to mention, who have played important roles in the growth of the Center. The ones who immediately came to mind for Gildin are the Center’s original Director, Gershon Winer, and a Director of more recent vintage, Avi Lipsker, as well as Prof. Aviva Tal, all of whom were deeply devoted to the Center’s mission to introduce a new generation of students, from Israel and other countries, to a vital and living part of our Jewish heritage.
A Board member of the American Friends of Bar-Ilan University who frequently does pro-bono legal work for the organization, Gildin said one of his most memorable visits to Israel is when he and his wife, Lisa, visited the Center a few years ago. They were struck by the diversity of students in the program, which offers degrees at all levels up to and including PhD. Students in the program have hailed from such wide ranging places as Ethiopia, France, Russia and all regions of Israel.
One such recent graduate who was an unexpected “lover of the mame-loshen” was Harel Pinchas, the first Ethiopian student to learn Yiddish at Bar-Ilan. “While I don’t have a Bubbeh with whom to speak Yiddish, I find the language so rich, said Pinchas, who wants to become a Yiddish lecturer.
Gildin said that Rena and his late parents, Trudy and Mutl, who helped oversee the endowment until he passed away last year, would “shep nachas” from seeing how many program graduates pursue teaching and research positions in the Yiddish field. “My aunt, who was fortunate to escape from Europe just prior to World War II, wanted to create a program that would honor and remember the rich culture and traditions of those killed in the Holocaust. The millions that perished spoke, sang, thought and created in Yiddish. She felt the Center was a concrete way to bring to life the martyrs’ spirit, language and culture. Through the Center, she has accomplished this goal and so much more,” said Gildin.
He said that Rena and the founding supporters of the Center, particularly his father, Mutl, and his uncles, David and Leon Gildin, and Harold Platt, viewed it as an investment that would continue to pay great dividends to Israel and the Jewish people. “Over 200 people used to come out to support the Center every year at the Annual Banquet in New York. Those days may be gone, but I’m hoping the new generation sees the tremendous value of this wonderful program and steps up to support it,” said Gildin.
After selling her business, Rena could have spent her money in any number of ways. Gildin said she chose this project at Bar-Ilan because “she was convinced it would do the best job of attracting young people to the joys of Yiddish and training Yiddish teachers and researchers in a way that would save and spread this part of our cultural heritage throughout the world.”
“Rena truly knew she had made the right choice when in 1996 the Israel Ministry of Education appointed the Center to oversee Yiddish education in the Israeli schools. That very same year, the late MK Dov Shilansky, Vice-President of the Knesset, recognized her and the Center for being the inspiration in the Knesset’s vote to grant official status in Israel to make Yiddish a national Jewish cultural treasure,” he added.
Gildin said he is thrilled that Rena’s vision has flourished at the Center, where students can study everything from Klezmer to Yiddish rap, Sholem Aleichem to Isaac Bashevis Singer, the great plays of Abraham Goldfaden to modern American Yiddish poetry. He is confident that the Center’s offerings will continue to expand with the help of a whole new generation of supporters and the endowment, which he hopes his son Andrew will help oversee in the years to come.
For information about partnership opportunities to advance Yiddish Studies at Bar-Ilan University, contact Gary Baskind at 212-906-3904 or email email@example.com