History-Minded Alumnus Endows Fund for Jewish Studies Students

By Sacha Adorno

James E. (Jamie) Schwartz, C’78, PAR’16, had always been interested in his ancestry, but the advent of web-based genealogy tools turned casual curiosity into true passion. Using historical records sourced online as well as email and letter-writing outreach, he’s created an extensive family tree that reaches back nine generations and contains the names of more than 2,000 individuals, a few born as early as 1750. It chronicles relationships, births, deaths, and meaningful milestones of generations long gone, painting a picture of lives and people about whom he might otherwise have never known. On the tree are family members killed in the Holocaust, a distant relative who fought for the Union Army and died in the Andersonville Confederate prison, and another whose Frank Lloyd Wright house in the Hollywood Hills, overlooking Sunset Boulevard, is now part of a museum.

When Schwartz, a longtime donor to the Penn Fund, began thinking about specifically supporting Penn Arts and Sciences, he found inspiration in these genealogical investigations—and the excitement that comes from unearthing history or connecting to cultures and communities in different times and places. He worked with Penn’s Talya Fishman, director of the Jewish Studies Program and associate professor in the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations, to craft an endowed fund for Jewish Studies graduate and undergraduate students.

“I was very happy at Penn, and my daughter was also,” says Schwartz, whose daughter Deborah (Debbie) Schwartz graduated from the College this year. “The University has a played a major role in my life so it was natural to give to Penn.”

A member of the Manhattan-based firm Cyruli Shanks, Jamie credits the College with setting the course for his successful career as a commercial litigator. “I majored in American history and learned how to write well, think clearly, read critically, and research thoroughly. So now it’s my turn to help current students. My goal for supporting Jewish Studies students is to make it easier for them to engage in original research by defraying the expenses of investigating sources.”

Recent undergraduate Jewish Studies theses offer a sense of the range of research projects that the Louis Schwartz and Elaine Friedman Schwartz Memorial Research Award Endowed Fund might support. They include “Shmuel Alexandrov and the Making of a Modern Russian Jewish Philosophy,” “Investigating Jewish Activism in Atlanta During the Civil Rights Movement,” and “The Free Library Bible, Its Decoration, and Its History: A Case Study in 15th-Century Spanish Hebrew Bibles.” Topics such as these often require studying materials and consulting with experts far from Penn. For current and future students, the fund will cover expenses—including transportation and lodging—incurred in conducting this kind of research.

“Some of our students undertake research into topics that are best investigated through the study of circumstances or materials outside Philadelphia, or the U.S.—in the Middle East, North Africa, Europe—anywhere where Jewish culture has had a presence,” says Fishman. “This fund will enable graduate and undergraduate students to immerse themselves more fully in their research projects by facilitating travel, face-to-face conversations, and sustained study of primary sources. Faculty members are thrilled when students have fires in their bellies about a topic and are self-motivated. Engaged inquiry of this sort is what students will remember long after they have graduated from Penn. Jamie’s gift will help to finance these intensive explorations, and we are grateful for his generosity.”

Coming full circle, Schwartz was able to tie his own family tree to the gift. When his mother died last year, he invited people to contribute to the fund in her memory. “My mother shared my interest in exploring what the lives of her ancestors were like —but throughout her long life never had the tools to access the information—and my father spoke about the lives of his parents and grandparents. So, in many ways, this gift honors my family as well,” he reflects.

Debbie; Schwartz’s wife, Susan; and his other children, Jessica and Andrew, are in full support. Says Schwartz, “I’ve been fortunate to connect to my history, and I want others to have similar opportunities to access the world in a way that is fulfilling to them and meaningful to their scholarship.”