PSU honors Stampfer
‘I did it my way.’
By DEBORAH MOON, Jewish Review
article created on: 2011-11-01T00:00:00
Noting that normally an honorary degree bestows honor upon both the recipient and the university, Portland State University President Wim Wiewel said, “Rabbi (Joshua) Stampfer does not need more honors… He is honoring us by allowing us to bring him in … and draw from his vitality.”
In front of 120 people from across Portland, including PSU deans and faculty, Wiewel bestowed an honorary doctorate of humane letters on Stampfer, calling him a prominent leader of Portland’s Jewish community for half a century, a philanthropist, scholar, friend of the university “and above all, a real mensch.”
While he might not need more honors, Stampfer responded, “I am deeply honored with this recognition from Portland State University. I regard my relationship with Portland State as one of the treasures of my life.”
In his acceptance speech, the rabbi reflected on that relationship, which began in 1961 teaching in the Middle East Studies program and continues today with his support of and involvement in the Harold Schnitzer Family Program in Judaic Studies.
His talk highlighted two international programs that he inaugurated—one in Israel and one in China.
Following his third sabbatical in Israel, Stampfer said he had the idea to create a Portland State study abroad program in Israel. He said he could have done it the easy way by developing a joint program with an Israeli university, “But I did it my way. I wanted this to be a Portland State University program.”
So he hired teachers and found classrooms and a woman willing to cook dinners for 15 PSU students for two quarters in Rehovat, Israel. He said guest lecturers included leaders of the Knesset when Israel was founded. Stampfer’s interest in archaeology developed into participation in an excavation on the South Wall of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, with students unearthing items now displayed in Israeli museums.
He called the program a worthwhile experience that he hoped to repeat, “but it never happened again.”
In 1983, Stampfer said he became obsessed with the idea of going to China while researching the life of early Portland Rabbi Julius Eckman and his discovery of the remains of a Jewish community in Kaifung, China.
“In my innocence—which is a problem rabbis have—I wrote to the Chinese embassy,” said Stampfer, noting he received no reply. A talk with China’s vice ambassador to the United States also drew no response to his request to visit Kaifung.
After learning that Chinese universities were eager to establish sister university relations with U.S. universities, Stampfer said he approached the current PSU president and within a week had a letter to the president of Kaifung University complete with a “large, impressive seal…to make him read the letter.”
After receiving an invitation to come to Kaifung University, Stampfer overcame a series of hurdles to make the trip happen.
“Life is networking,” he said.
So he called on then U.S. Secretary of Transportation Neil Goldschmidt to help arrange travel and on a PSU teacher of Chinese to translate during the trip.
One result of the trip, he said was the creation of the Sino-Judaic Institute, which has “provided Jewish Encyclopedias in Chinese to all the Chinese Universities’.”
“There is a renaissance in Jewihs life—or at least Jewish studies—all over China,” he said.
Stampfer said, “All of that because of the willingness of Portland State University to do something different, to reach out when there was a need for scholarship.”
Now as PSU is poised to hire its fourth professor of Judaic Studies— Rabbi Stampfer Professor of Israel Studies, Stampfer said he is grateful for “the remarkable cooperation we’ve always received from the university.”
Following the formalities , Wiewel invited the audience to stay for the reception because, “it wouldn’t be a Jewish occasion without the food in the back.”.”
During the reception Wiewel referred to Stampfer as the guardian angel of the Judaic studies program.
He said the university has several “pearls”—Judaic studies, opera, others—and they all need guardian angels, “people who deeply believe in bringing in more people and who vouch that this is worth doing—that’s what Rabbi Stampfer does.”
To see a slideshow the Judaic studies department created about the event, visit www.pdx.edu/judaic/links.