UC Judaic Studies professor makes local, international impact

Gila Safran-Naveh returns to teaching in fall as professor emerita

Gila Safran-Naveh has been invited to present a paper at the 18th World Congress of Jewish Studies in August 2022, which would have been a fitting conclusion to her 35-year career as a professor of Judaic Studies at the University of Cincinnati.

But it will not be the end of her career. Though she tendered her resignation in January 2022, she was quickly invited back to teach as a professor emerita, a tribute to her life’s body of work and legacy at UC’s College of Arts and Sciences.

Over the past 35 years at UC, Safran-Naveh has helped grow Judaic Studies from a program to an entire department, changing the view of Judaic Studies at the University and in Cincinnati as the Endowed Chair of the Jewish Foundation.

UC professor emerita of Judaic Studies Gila Safran-Naveh

UC professor emerita of Judaic Studies Gila Safran-Naveh

“You want to leave, and then you are nostalgic, and then you stop being nostalgic because you start working again,” Safran-Naveh says.

Her upcoming presentation at the 18th World Congress of Jewish Studies will help to spread her research and awareness of the University of Cincinnati. Its venue, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, is where Safran-Naveh earned an undergraduate degree in 1969.

When one of her former professors at The Hebrew University traveled to San Diego in 1969 to present a paper at San Diego State University, Safran-Naveh took the opportunity to visit the U.S. for the first time. While there, her professor encouraged her to earn another bachelor’s degree at the university. She decided to stay and went on to earn a B.A. and M.A. at San Diego State ity and a PhD in Comparative Literature at the University of California San Diego in 1981.

“I fell in love with the United States,” she says. “I fell in love with the freedom of speech, the possibility that a young woman who came penniless, if she fights hard, can really reach her goals.”

In 1986, she joined the staff at the University of Cincinnati. Since then, she has presented papers in Tel Aviv, Paris, Toronto, Rome, New York and Berlin, among others. But her true passion lies at UC through teaching and advocating for the university.

When Safran-Naveh first came to UC, there were only three faculty in the Judaic Studies program. She and the faculty created a group called Friends of Judaic Studies. The group sent letters and Safran-Naveh gave lectures “everywhere” in town, presenting scholarly lectures, speaking at churches, synagogues and corporations such as Procter & Gamble Co., and “wherever there were people interested,” she says.

UC professor emerita of Judaic Studies Gila Safran-Naveh in the classroom.

UC professor emerita of Judaic Studies Gila Safran-Naveh in the classroom.

Slowly, Safran-Naveh and her colleagues created a substantial group of alumni, former faculty and community members that supported their goal of transforming Judaic Studies from a program to a department.

It was a service to the university from the beginning, Safran-Naveh says. “As faculty, we teach, research and serve, and part of the service to the university and to the college is to help it thrive,” she says.

She has found a community in Cincinnati that shares her ongoing quest for knowledge, which for Safran-Naveh started at a young age after being born in the Transnistria concentration camp at the end of World War II. 

Growing up, she wasn’t supposed to ask her surviving relatives about the experience, thus spurring a lifelong interest in Judaic Studies and sharing the stories of Holocaust survivors, she says.

“We were told not to bother the survivors too much when we were kids, because there’s so much pain,” she says. “But I had many questions. That was always an impetus to look for that absence. There’s a void, there’s an absence that you try to understand, but we could not talk about that too much because it hurt our beloved. So, I was always researching.”

Now, Safran-Naveh is working on a new book about the experiences of women during the Holocaust, and she will present a paper at the 18th World Congress of Jewish Studies at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem this August.

On her new emerita title, Safran-Naveh says: “They have a lot of activities, including mentoring students. You want to guide them to the research and in the direction that would be the most fruitful and most appropriate for their own interest. This is a wonderful bridge to other kinds of activities where I continue serving the university in my college.”

Today, her impact at UC has been substantial. Safran-Naveh has received the prestigious Dolly Cohen Award, the Edith Alexander Award Instruction and the George C. Barbour Award—all for outstanding instruction at the university level.

Valerio Ferme, executive vice president for academic affairs and provost, wrote of Safran-Naveh when granting her professor emerita status: “With this title, the Board of Trustees of the University of Cincinnati formally recognizes Gila’s very important contributions. It has been an honor to work with a dedicated educator whose remarkable career is a source of inspiration.”

Additionally, many students, former and current, credit her contributions to their academic and personal successes.

“I felt like I finally have been given the ability to take control of my narrative, and that power was given to me by you and the way you run your classroom,” Kayla Stemmer, a former student of Safran-Naveh’s, wrote to her in 2018. “You and this class are the sole reason that I have not dropped out; in fact, I feel like I have a new dream to follow and I’m excited about next semester instead of dreading it.”

Max Bleich, a Judaic Studies graduate, said of Safran-Naveh: “She is articulate, calming and comforting to have teaching subjects that are complex and emotionally impactful.”

She will continue to make an impact on students this fall when she returns to teaching at UC.

“There is a lot of work to do,” she says. “As the poet said, you know, ‘Miles to go before I sleep, miles to go before I sleep.’ There is a lot of work to be done.”

Featured image at top: Old city, Jerusalem, Israel. Credit/Sander Crombach on Unsplash.

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By Bryn Dippold

Student Journalist, A&S Department of Marketing and Communication


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