By Cooper Drummond and Anthony Vassallo
Professor Michael Taub has been teaching Jewish Studies at SUNY Purchase as an adjunct since 1998. After being informed in the spring of 2021 that changes were coming to the Jewish Studies program, he says he was surprised when he woke up to an email in January that told him the Jewish studies program would not offer his courses in the following academic year.
Taub has influenced a majority of students who studied under him. “The conversations were so engaging I found that I was in the class with the same people over and over and over again, because everyone was signing up for his classes,” said Sarette Verdeschi, who took Taub’s classes 15 years ago.
He conducted his classes through discussions, rather than through a textbook, which helped keep students interested and involved. “He teaches you about history and culture, without saying read the textbook to find out,” said Grace Day, a former student who still keeps in touch with Taub. Day took his classes in 2015 and 2016.
Taub would spend hours on the weekend discussing the topics of his classes with his students. The sensitivity and difficulty of the classes would prompt several students to seek extra time with Taub, and he was always willing to meet their needs.
Often meeting at the campus Starbucks, “he would say, bring your books, let's talk about it,” said Verdeschi. “How many teachers are doing that?”
A week before the spring semester began, Taub received an email from Lisa Keller, the program coordinator of the Jewish Studies program. Within the email, Keller wrote, “We do not plan to offer the Jewish Studies courses you have been teaching in the upcoming year.” Keller founded the journalism program at SUNY Purchase in 1998 and specializes in trans-Atlantic, women’s and urban history.
Taub said he was disappointed after reading the email because this was the first notice that he received regarding this situation. His first thoughts were, “What will happen to my students?”
According to graduateprogram.org, adjunct professors differ from full-time professors in that they are contracted to teach one or more classes each year. They do not have other duties or responsibilities that a full-time person might, such as publishing, conducting research, or attending meetings.
Despite teaching at the school for over two decades, Taub’s title as an adjunct lecturer, hired on a semester-to-semester basis and without tenured status, offers him little job security.
Taub said, “I can have hundreds of people write nice emails about me, but they're just going to go ahead with their day. Their agenda is to just take over things.”
Keller wrote in an email, “We cannot comment on personal matters. However, adjunct hiring is subject to curriculum and program needs, which may change from year to year based on a variety of factors including course offerings, enrollment, and programmatic changes.”
A number of students have taken more than one of Taub’s courses, which has cultivated a cult-like following around him. “He made it feel like we were all adults that had our own thoughts and opinions as opposed to ‘I’m the adult, listen to what I say,’” said Rebecca Wierman, who took Theatrical Representations of the Holocaust and Imagining America’s Yiddish world with Taub. She graduated in 2017.
In an email response to a Phoenix inquiry, Aviva Taubenfeld, the director of Humanities and associate professor of literature, wrote, “We are rethinking the Jewish Studies program’s course offerings. Next year’s classes will be largely history based.”
Taub said he is concerned that the cultural aspects of history that he has taught for over two decades will get lost in time, a point on which his students agree. “If you’re going to eliminate culture, what’s the point of having history?” asked Day. “You cannot omit culture from history, as a matter of fact, culture is history.”
Taub said, “They came up with this idea that Jewish studies should be just a history program. And that is insane, because you're talking about ethnic studies, you have to cover a whole range of things: culture, language, literature, and so on. And so this whole business is just to do history courses. That's just nonsense.”
Day said, “I think the students will suffer if they don’t include a part of the Jewish culture. I think Taub is someone that should be in a position to train teachers about the social aspect of history. It’s extremely naive and poorly thought out to exclude any education when it comes to culture and religion, because that is what makes people go to war.”
Taub grew up in Communist Romania and was forced to have his bar mitzvah in secret to avoid prosecution. His parents were Holocaust survivors and he fought for the Israeli army during the Arab Israeli War in 1967, as well as the Yom Kippur War in 1973. He said he and his family members have first-hand experiences in historical events that shaped Jewish history today.
“I don’t understand the logic behind asking someone with so much information to leave,” said Emily Dolinsky, a senior who is currently enrolled in Taub’s literature class America's Yiddish World. “You’re trying to give people an education and you’re trying to teach them about Jewish people, yet you’re getting rid of someone who’s lived through such a heartbreaking experience. That’s so stupid.”
One of Taub’s course evaluations last year read, “The lectures on the books we read are extensive but highly *readable* with rare information.”
Most of his students find this teaching style beneficial to their learning experience because it fosters an inclusive atmosphere.
“I would have an interpretation of something, and then as soon as he shared, and my peers shared, I was able to start looking at things from a more analytical lens and start to understand things differently,” said Wierman.
Although Taub was not fired or told he would never teach again at Purchase, students were extremely surprised when they got the news that the courses they took wouldn’t be running in the upcoming year.
“I don’t even have words because it’s so crazy, it doesn’t make any sense at all,” said Dolinsky.“I think his information is so important and it needs to be appreciated.”
“I invested 23 years of my life, I'm not just an adjunct who comes and goes,” said Taub. “To send me an email that basically I'm to leave after the semester is just not professional, you know, it just, it hurts. It hurts very big.”