When Ken Stein first came to Emory University in 1977 as a young professor, Jimmy Carter had not yet been inaugurated as president, Menachem Begin was not prime minister of Israel, Temple Emanu-El and Congregation B’nai Torah didn’t exist, and no one was teaching Israeli studies in Atlanta.
He was asked by the head of Emory’s history department to give a course in modern Jewish history, but Stein said he had other ideas.
“I’d prefer to give a course on modern Israel,” Stein recalled. “The department head said, ‘Well, you better get more than 20 kids for it. Your future here at Emory is dependent on it.’ I got 80 kids in that class. It was, I think, the second largest class in the history department.”
The Israel history class was the start of what is generally considered to be a wildly successful career as author, scholar, advisor to America’s presidents, founder of Emory’s Institute for the Study of Modern Israel and the Center for Israel Education. But it is as a mentor to generations of Emory students and as a distinguished teacher that Stein is most proud.
Last month, when he stepped down after 43 years as a member of Emory’s academic faculty, the departing graduates heard many of the same words he has used for decades.
“I told students there are the things that you want to think about when you leave. And there are always three major concepts. They haven’t changed over the years.
“The first is that you’re the most privileged group of 21- and 22-year-olds in the world. You should know that and never forget that that privilege is something that you have to do something with. And the second is if you don’t use the days that are in your life ahead of you, then you have squandered your chance to be something special.
“The choices you make. And that’s the third concept; the choices you make between now and when you get to be my age will determine what you become. So I hope you take what you learned here and do something with it. So that it’s not necessarily a last lecture, it’s just three small concepts that you need to be aware of on a day-to-day basis.”
Over the years, Stein has been the best example of living the kind of life that he challenged his students to pursue. He has written what he estimates to be more than 300 articles over the years for this newspaper in an attempt to explain Israel’s policies and historical development.
Every year for over four decades he has publicly spoken in our community as many as a dozen times a year, by his own count, to synagogues and other groups about the same subject: Israel’s unique role in the modern life of the Jewish people.
“Israel is the story of Jews taking destiny into their own hands, saying we’re going to take an idea and turn it into reality, and then they did it and then they decided to protect it.”
It is this concept of a living, prospering modern state of Israel with a bright future that Stein believes American Jews, and perhaps even some of his young Jewish students, are too quick to forget.
“Anti-Semitism is not all of Jewish history. I’ve spent my entire life learning about how Jews created history by creating the state of Israel. And it’s a great story. They chose to be engaged with history. They chose to be a subject in the sentence and not the object of someone else’s. They chose not to stay aloof. You can teach students to be part of the community, like the guy did in the 1976 film, ‘Network,’ who threw open the window and said, ‘I’m not going to take it anymore’.”
While he has done much to inspire the study and appreciation of modern Israel, he credits his parents, who came to America before the Holocaust from Germany, for the inspiration that has motivated his own life.
He remembers a story in this newspaper that was written after he visited the small town near Frankfurt where his mother grew up and how he told her how impressed he was by the changes there.
“She said to me, ‘Kenneth, we’ve survived all these years because we’re not satisfied with what we did yesterday.’ What a great statement. That, I think, pretty well personifies what I’ve tried to do. That’s probably why I told these kids, you get oxygen, you’ve got 24 hours, find your passion, don’t waste it.”