Meet the Honorees: Dr. Jonathan Sarna

On May 11th, Mayyim Hayyim’s annual benefit, Making History, will celebrate two visionary leaders for making history in our community. 

Jonathan Sarna arrived in Boston at the age of ten. His father, Nahum Sarna, was a biblical scholar at Brandeis and his mother, Helen, a librarian and cataloger at Hebrew College. He attended Brandeis, and then Yale to study American history with a special focus on American religion.

Jonathan then worked and taught at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati, home of the American Jewish Archives. That’s where he met his wife, Ruth Langer, now a professor of Jewish studies at Boston College. With Ruth in the family, Jonathan says, they had all of Jewish history covered. “My father covered the ancient period, Ruth does medieval, I do modern and contemporary.”

In 1990, Jonathan returned to Boston and Brandeis to assume the new Braun Chair in American Jewish history. One of his first projects was editing, with Ellen Smith, The Jews of Boston. Jonathan decided to write a one-volume history of Judaism in America. Shortly after beginning, however, he was diagnosed with esophageal cancer. The prognosis was grim and he wondered whether he would live to finish the book. But he did recover and in 2004, to coincide with the 350th anniversary of American Jewish life, American Judaism: A History was published to great acclaim.

Jonathan has known about Mayyim Hayyim since its inception. He recalls talking to founding president Anita Diamant, and made his support known to the community. After Mayyim Hayyim opened, Jonathan brought young journalists from a program for North American religion reporters, as a case study in how to cover Jewish life and traditions. Mayyim Hayyim “was the highlight of the field trips. The journalists understood that this is lived religion, not just theology and thought.”

When Mayyim Hayyim hosted its first international conference in 2010, Jonathan agreed to participate in the keynote panel discussion. He recalls how impressed he was by that gathering: “This wasn’t just a singular institution. It had become a movement… This is something all Jews should be proud of.”

Join us for a fun and festive evening of storytelling. RSVP or donate here.


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