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With a New Name and Transformative Gifts, AU’s Center for Israel Studies Turns 25

Gifts from the Meltzer and Schwartzberg families were announced at center’s 25th anniversary celebration

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American University’s Center for Israel Studies has received a joint, multi-million-dollar commitment from Amy Meltzer and Board of Trustees member Alan Meltzer, CAS/BA ’21, and AU friends Jaime and Andrew Schwartzberg. The gifts will support the center’s groundbreaking work to catalyze the field of Israel Studies and build bridges between nations, religions, and cultures.

In recognition of this generous commitment, the center will be named the Meltzer Schwartzberg Center for Israel Studies.

American University President Sylvia M. Burwell announcing the renaming of the center during the 25th anniversary celebration on April 16, 2023

“Twenty-five years after AU established the first Center for Israel Studies in the United States, we begin a new chapter with a new name,” says Michael Brenner, who serves as the center’s director and as American University’s Seymour and Lillian Abensohn Chair in Israel Studies. “The generous gift of the Meltzer and Schwartzberg families will enable us to add new classes, to increase the financial support for our students, and to build academic bridges between Americans and Israelis, Israel and the Arab world, and a divided Israeli society.”

The gifts were announced on Sunday, April 16, at the center’s 25th anniversary celebration dinner at American University Washington College of Law’s Claudio Grossman Hall, in front of more than 150 invited guests. The celebratory event, with guest speaker former US ambassador to Israel Daniel B. Shapiro, served as the culmination of 25 years of Israel-focused scholarship and a festive opportunity to thank the center’s friends and philanthropic donors.

“The Meltzer Schwartzberg Center for Israel Studies is a vital hub of learning, culture, and bridge building at American University, says Linda Aldoory, Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. “We are incredibly grateful for this generous gift from longtime friends and supporters Alan and Amy Meltzer and Andrew and Jaime Schwartzberg, and we cannot wait to see what the center will accomplish in the next 25 years.”

Visionary Supporters

Amy and Alan Meltzer

The Meltzers' gift follows their previous support to the center, including the Alan L. Meltzer and Amy Meltzer Fellowship, and a lead gift with the David and June Trone Family Foundation to create an endowed fund for the center’s annual conference. In all, the Meltzers have given more to the Change Can’t Wait campaign than any other individuals to date.

“Through taking classes, attending events, and working with the outstanding faculty and staff, I’ve seen firsthand the important work of the Center for Israel Studies to fight antisemitism, to build bridges, and promote inclusivity. The center takes a multidisciplinary approach to a complex history, culture, and geopolitical challenges. We’re proud to support the center’s impactful work," says Alan Meltzer.

The Schwartzbergs, longtime friends of the Meltzers, were inspired to join in making this commitment in recognition of the center as a national leader committed to welcoming a diversity of thought and fighting antisemitism.

“Preserving our Jewish heritage is something our family is very passionate about,” says Jaime Schwartzberg. “Advancing knowledge in Israel studies can help make significant contributions to a variety of academic disciplines and promote cross-cultural understanding. We feel honored to be a part of this incredible organization.”

Bridge Building and Common Ground

Michael Brenner with diplomats from the embassies of Kenya, Israel, and the African Union after discussion with students on Israel's relations with African countries

The Meltzer Schwartzberg Center for Israel Studies, housed within the College of Arts and Sciences, was a pioneering enterprise from its beginning. It was inaugurated in 1998 by Israel’s prime minister and future president Shimon Peres, and it became the first center of its kind in the United States dedicated to studying the modern state of Israel. Under Brenner’s leadership, the center acts as a hub of Israel scholarship at American University, working with more than 25 faculty advisors and affiliates across 15 academic disciplines.

The center’s academic work focuses on the forefront of the study of Israel’s history, politics, society, and culture. It comes at a critical time for Israel and the world, when understanding and bridge building is crucial. “Never has it been more important to teach and to undertake research on Israel than today. With antisemitism on the rise, and Israel often at the center of antisemitic stereotypes, it is vital to educate about the history of the Jewish people and the Jewish state," says Brenner. “With Israel divided as never before, it is more crucial than ever to build bridges. We will continue to do so in our broad range of classes, our international conferences, our community outreach programs, our Global Israel embassy series, and our numerous opportunities for students to intern in Israel-related organizations and to study in Israel.”

The center’s 33 international conferences to date have explored themes as varied as Israel and Water: Scarcity, Innovation and Cooperation; Israeli Innovation in Greentech; Religions and Society; The Arab Population of Israel; Israeli Cuisine; and Challenges to Israel’s Democracy. Scholars invited to campus and supported by the center include Morad El Sana (the first Meltzer Fellow and a member of the Bedouin group in Israel), Dorit Beinisch (the first female Chief Justice in Israel), former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, President Isaac Herzog, and leading academics from across the world.

“We are planning our fall annual conference, dedicated to the topic of “Building Bridges,” and we will focus on the major gaps in Israeli society: religious-secular, left-right, Mizrahi (Jews of Middle Eastern origin), Ashkenazi (Jews of European origin), and Palestinian Arabs and Jews,” says Brenner. “We do not want to concentrate only on academics here, but also invite important bridge builders of Israeli society. I also intend to invite Meltzer Fellows who work on ways to build bridges between the different segments of Israeli society and the Middle East in general.”

Students, Peace, and the Global Community

"Water, Cooperation, and Peace in the Middle East" SIS graduate practicum in cooperation with the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies and the Palestinian Wastewater Engineers Group

The Meltzer Schwartzberg Center for Israel Studies has a long history of preparing American University students to serve the global community and wage peace. The center's students graduate to jobs at think tanks, embassies, NGOs, government agencies, and other prestigious institutions, where they spread the knowledge they acquired at American University.

Alumnus Daniel Hammerman, SIS/BA ’15, currently works at Moishe House. As he looks back at his time at AU, he says he is grateful for the opportunities the center provided for him to engage with Israel, both inside and outside the classroom. They included internships at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, Seeds of Peace, the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, and the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. “Not only was I intrigued by the material for my required courses as an Israel Studies minor, but I was riveted to observe the relevance of my course topics to current events by attending public forums the center organized with high-profile speakers," he says. “In addition, I greatly benefited from the mock Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiation in my senior capstone course, which gave me a much deeper understanding of important issues that I still dwell on today.”

The center facilitates study abroad exchanges between AU and Israeli institutions, expanding students’ world views and perspectives. Alumnus Jared Rosenthal, SIS/BA ’17, says he received a travel award to study at Tel Aviv University, where he pursued a master's degree in security and diplomacy. He currently works as head of CRM for an online marketing company in Tel Aviv. "The center had one of the most profound impacts on my life since being a student at American University almost 10 years ago," he says. “It provided a home and a safe space for dialogue and learning about Israel and its complex geopolitical history."

The center also connects students with internships at the Embassy of Israel, the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, and other institutions. Alumna Jessica Horst, Kogod/BA ’19, had her interest in Israel kindled while working at the center as a four-year intern. She later interned with Israel’s Ministry of Health and now works at Israel’s Shalom Corps. “The center has been a core community and an open and safe space to learn about current events in Israel, hear diverse opinions, and discuss everything about Israel," she says. “It introduced me to the scope of Israeli contributions to global development efforts, which was a major motivator for me to pursue a master's degree in emergency management in Israel and begin a career in humanitarian action.”

Perhaps one of the center’s most fundamental accomplishments is bridge building on campus, welcoming everyone into a supportive learning community, one that leaves students and alumni with a deep sense of gratitude. Tamara Listenberg, SIS/BA ’24, says, “The center brings people from different backgrounds, religions, and beliefs together. They manage to generate a respectful dialogue in all their settings about one of the most complicated conflicts in the world.” Fellow student Zachary Barkley, SIS/BA ’24, agrees. “The center has given me a voice, allowing me to explore my passions and interests through interacting with and learning from a diverse array of perspectives.”

Fueled by the Generosity of Lead Supporters

Bob Kogod and Lillian Abensohn

Since its earliest days, the Meltzer Schwartzberg Center for Israel Studies’ impact has been fueled by the generosity of lead supporters from the American University community. They include Lillian Klein Abensohn and her late husband Seymour, for whom the Seymour and Lillian Abensohn Endowed Chair in Israel Studies is named, the position currently held by Distinguished Professor Michael Brenner.

In addition, Daniel and Helen Sonenshine established the Sonenshine Lecture Series and the Helen and Daniel Sonenshine Professorship Fund to endow a permanent faculty position devoted to Israel and Jewish Studies. Larry Swillinger’s generous estate gift will endow the Lawrence D. Swillinger Fund to support center priorities and the Jewish Studies Program at the College of Arts and Sciences.

About the Meltzer Schwartzberg Center for Israel Studies

Celebrating its 25th anniversary in 2023, American University’s Meltzer Schwartzberg Center for Israel Studies (CIS) is one of the nation’s premier educational centers for nurturing and catalyzing Israel Studies. CIS's multidisciplinary approach goes beyond the Arab-Israeli conflict to study modern Israel’s history, vibrant society, culture, multiethnic democracy, and complex geopolitical issues. Using AU’s expertise in global education and its central location in Washington, DC, the center serves as a national and international hub for building bridges and highlighting the diverse achievements and challenges across Israel.

About the Change Can’t Wait Campaign

The naming of the Meltzer Schwartzberg Center for Israel Studies comes at a time of great momentum for our university. Our Change Can’t Wait $500 million campaign is fueling the aspirations laid out in the Changemakers for a Changing World strategy. Across disciplines, we are transforming educational opportunities, creating space for diversity of thought, and fostering innovation.