The field of American Jewish history lost one of its great champions with the passing of Professor Moshe Davis. Over a span of several decades, Davis established a network of institutions that brought new respect to the fledgling field of American Jewish history in the United States. After his aliyah to Israel in the late 1950s, he built yet more academic programs and institutes that gave pride of place to the American Jewish historical experience.
Moshe Davis was born in Brooklyn in 1916. As a young man, Davis studied at two institutions that would serve as his academic homes for his entire career. First he enrolled at the Jewish Theological Seminary’s Teachers Institute. And immediately upon completing his BA in 1937, he departed for a year of study at the Hebrew University. Davis eventually returned to JTS for his rabbinical studies. (He was ordained in 1942.) A few year later, he was awarded a doctorate by the Hebrew University—the first American Jew to receive a Ph.D. from that university.
Significantly, his dissertation, written under Ben Zion Dinur, dealt with the emergence of the Historical School of Judaism in nineteenth century America. It was published in revised form as Yahadut Amerika Be-hitpatchutah (by JTS in 1950); and subsequently appeared in English as The Emergence of Conservative Judaism (published by the Jewish Publication Society in 1965). The dissertation was emblematic of the man and his lifelong interests: his fascination with the American Jewish experience; his ideological commitment to Conservative Judaism; and his love of the Hebrew language.
Davis gave expression to the latter through his efforts to build Hebrew language institutions in the United States. In the late 1930s, he helped found the Histadrut Hanoar Ha’Ivri, a youth organization of students enrolled at the various Hebrew colleges in the U.S.; he also edited Niv, the journal of that organization. Davis played a role in the founding of the Hebrew Arts Foundation, the Massad camps (a Hebrew speaking camping network), and the Hebrew Arts School for Music and Dance. At JTS he was a charismatic figure, attracting like-minded American Jews who were enamored of the Hebrew language and committed to Zionism.
Davis held a succession of administrative positions at JTS. In 1945, he succeeded Mordecai Kaplan as the Dean of the Teachers Institute, and from 1950–59 he served as the institution’s Provost. From those perches, Davis would be instrumental in persuading Louis Finkelstein to develop [End Page 267] new educational ventures in the post-World War II period, particularly for the training of a new leadership cadre for the Conservative movement. Davis was a central figure in the founding of the Ramah summer camps and the Leadership Training Fellowship, both under the auspices of JTS. He also played a major role in the development of the JTS radio and television programs (the “Eternal Light” and “Frontiers of Faith” programs) intended to broadcast Judaism to a wider audience. Some observers expected that Davis would eventually succeed Louis Finkelstein as president of the Conservative seminary.
During his years at JTS, Davis joined forces with Alan Nevins, the distinguished American historian at Columbia University, to establish an American Jewish History Center. He edited a regional history series which produced volumes on the Jewish communities of Milwaukee, Los Angeles, Cleveland, and the agricultural areas of New Jersey.
After making aliyah in 1959, Davis prevailed upon the Hebrew University to create a new institute dedicated to the study of contemporary Jewry. For several decades, Davis headed the Avraham Harman Institute of Contemporary Jewry. In addition to recruiting a talented cadre of young scholars who in time have become internationally recognized authorities on twentieth century Jewish demography, history, and politics, Davis, as the Stephen S. Wise Professor of American Jewish History, served as an interpreter of the American Jewish experience to an Israeli society that was at best cool to the entire subject.
Davis persisted and published a series of essays in Hebrew designed to place the American Jewish experience on the agenda of Israeli colleagues. As chairman of the Study Circle on World Jewry under the aegis of the President of Israel, Davis...