He started with nothing. No students. No faculty. No courses. No dedicated building. No programming.

Nothing.

But Martin Perlmutter did have an essential question: How is Jewish identity expressed in the American South? And he had a mandate: Create a Jewish Studies Program that seeks to answer that question. He had something else, too, something fundamental, something without which he could never succeed: a community he knew would support this effort.

With essential seed funding from Henry and Sylvia Yaschik, the program was started in 1984. Perlmutter, then chairman of the philosophy department at the College of Charleston, served as director during the start-up year. Dean of the Libraries David Cohen took the reins the second year, then Stuart Knee was appointed the first full-time director of Jewish Studies and served from 1986 until 1991, when Perlmutter succeeded him.

Twenty-eight years after he settled in as director for the long haul, Perlmutter is retiring and a new director, Yaron Ayalon, is taking over.

Ayalon is inheriting much more than an academic program. He is responsible for the Center for Holocaust Studies, the Center for Southern Jewish Culture, the Center for Israel Studies, the World of Jewish Culture series at Piccolo Spoleto Festival, the Kronsberg lecture series, Chanukah in the Square, the kosher-vegetarian cafe called Marty’s Place and much more.

For what began as a mere idea has become one of the College of Charleston’s biggest success stories.

“ ‘Jewish’ should resonate,” Perlmutter said. “There should be things that are Jewish that are attractive to a wider audience.” Music, lectures, film screenings, brunches with good food. “If you serve bagels, all the better.”

For Perlmutter, reaching younger generations and sharing something valuable about the Jewish experience has been a priority. To be sure, the program attracts Jewish students on campus, but it’s designed to cast a wide net, to offer opportunities for the college community, and the community beyond, to come together for a shared experience.

“Most of the students who take Jewish Studies courses are not Jewish,” Perlmutter noted.

Ayalon, 41, said Jewish Studies has become a multifaceted enterprise with “unparalleled” community outreach.

“I don’t know of any other Jewish Studies program that comes close to this,” he said.

Being bold, reaching out

Perlmutter’s parents fled Berlin in 1938. He grew up in New York City, where he attended Yeshiva University High School and the Jewish Theological Seminary. A good student, he enrolled at the University of Illinois as a philosophy major. He got his first job teaching philosophy in 1971 at the University of Texas in Austin, then spend a year at the former University of Tennessee in Nashville before landing in Charleston in 1979.

He was chairman of the philosophy department from 1982 to 1990. As director of the Jewish Studies program, he strived to emphasize the cultural aspects of Jewish life, leaving religion to local rabbis.

In 1995, he helped start the regular “Three Rabbi Panel,” featuring, typically, a local representative of Reform, Conservative and Orthodox Judaism.

That year, he also started the Sunday Morning Brunch series, featuring guest lectures and, yes, bagels.

In the 1980s and 1990s it was relatively easy to get what he wanted, Perlmutter said. The program functioned beneath the college radar for the most part, and people outside of the college were lending a hand.

“The college was less bureaucratic back then,” he said. “And the community was so responsive. ... If I have any one skill, it’s being bold and reaching out to the community.”

Members of the community — the Yaschiks, the Arnolds, the Pearlstines and Lipovs, the Zuckers and others — all have provided essential financial backing and administrative help.

“The joy of the job has been that the community has embraced what we’ve done,” Perlmutter said. “They’ve become friends, enthusiasts, supporters.”

Local businesswoman and philanthropist Anita Zucker has been involved with the Jewish Studies Program since the beginning. Her late husband, Jerry Zucker, was part of the founding board of advisers, and Anita often was called upon to help accomplish this or that goal.

“Marty used to make me do things,” she recalled with a smile. “Marty was quite a task master. ... He knew how to put me to good use. ... It’s a really good leader who understands how to make use of his board, and how to move the institution forward.”

Every new development — a minor in Jewish Studies, a major, an integrated Hillel organization, community programming, three centers of academic concentration, a new building, a new addition to the building, a kosher-vegetarian cafe — is designed to raise the program’s stature and make it more appealing to students across the country, Zucker said.

Now, the College of Charleston has named a new president, Andrew Hsu, making this an auspicious moment for a changing of the guard at Jewish Studies, she added. Ayalon, who comes to the college with administrative experience, has a chance to create “a good relationship with someone’s who’s new.”

Lewis Tick, a Jewish Studies advisory board member now serving on the executive committee, was a student of Perlmutter’s in the 1990s. He traveled to Israel with Perlmutter and took Jewish Studies courses.

He noted that about half of the students at the college are from out of state, and 10 percent of them self-identify as Jewish, creating a recruitment opportunity for the program.

“When I was there, there were 20-30 kids that were active (in Jewish Studies),” Tick said. “Now, they say there are up to 600 kids that come to events. It’s pretty impressive, the growth.”

Two passions

Mark Swick, community liaison for the Jewish Studies Program, and executive director of the Jewish Historical Society of South Carolina, said that Perlmutter’s vision for a holistic, community-rooted enterprise has set the program apart from others of its kind. On most college campuses, the Jewish life organization Hillel operates independently, but at the College of Charleston it’s part of Jewish Studies. Its staff includes former students.

The program throws open its doors to the entire college community, Swick said.

“Students can come in and take a class — in Hebrew, history, the Holocaust, Israel — and in the same building participate in community activities and Hillel programming,” he said.

Samantha Krantz, a 22-year-old Atlanta native, graduated from the College of Charleston in May with bachelor degrees in public health (she wants to become a doctor, she said) and Jewish Studies. She came to the college from a Jewish high school in Atlanta and, thanks to Perlmutter, immediately felt at home, Krantz said.

She loved that she could take courses on the Holocaust and Nazi medical practices, Hebrew, history and more, and in the same place attend Shabbat dinners and Hillel events.

Krantz will be back in Charleston this fall working in an MUSC epilepsy research lab and volunteering in the Jewish Studies Program and with the Charleston Jewish Federation.

It was Perlmutter, philosophy professor and Jewish Studies director, who showed her that a professional career and one’s cultural inheritance are not mutually exclusive, she said.

“One thing that Jewish Studies, and especially Marty, made me realize is it’s OK to have these two passions, and you can integrate them into everyday life.”

The search for a new director, led by German Department chairman Morgan Koerner, hit a bump in the road in 2018. Ezra Cappell of the University of Texas El Paso had been appointed to lead Jewish Studies, but not long after, the search was re-opened. Cappell was jointly appointed as professor of Jewish Studies and professor of English, and Ayalon, who had been one of the original applicants for the position, was named director.

"Although the College of Charleston previously announced that Dr. Ezra Cappell would become the next director of the Yaschik/Arnold Jewish Studies Program, after discussions between Dr. Cappell and the College, they have together agreed that upon transition to Charleston, Dr. Cappell will concentrate on his faculty commitments stemming from the joint department appointments, his time-sensitive research agenda, and his editorship of an important monograph series,” the office of the provost said in a statement.

Ayalon’s initial goal will be to take the measure of the program and devise a five-year plan, identifying growth opportunities, Swick said.

Worthy of a babysitter

Ayalon was born in Princeton, New Jersey, where his father, Ami Ayalon, was working on his Ph.D. in Middle Eastern history. But he grew up in the suburbs of Tel Aviv, spending all but two years of his childhood in Israel.

What goes around comes around: In 2009, Ayalon earned his own Ph.D. in history from Princeton University, where he met his wife, Keren. This was the height of the Great Recession, and academic appointments were scarce. Nevertheless, Ayalon found one at the University of Oklahoma. Two years later, he was teaching at Emory University in Atlanta, then landed a tenure-track job at Ball State University in Indiana, where he served as associate director of its Jewish Studies Program and chairman of the faculty senate.

“It was a good learning experience for how a university works,” he said.

Now he is determined to make two overarching improvements to the program he has inherited. First, he said, he wants to raise its national profile.

“Outside, people don’t think of (Jewish Studies at) the College of Charleston as a strong academic program, though it is,” he said. “In Charleston, everybody knows the program, but outside of Charleston, it doesn’t have that reputation.”

So he plans to make the program an institutional member of the Association for Jewish Studies, which will help put it on the map nationally, he said. And he plans to continue to bring in compelling guest speakers, luring them with the promise of an expenses-paid long weekend in an attractive tourist destination, with two speaking commitments, one academic, one public.

Strong academic programming will get noticed, Ayalon said.

“The scholars come first, the students come second, the reputation comes third,” he said.

The other improvement he wants to make is to develop programming and marketing tactics that bring more young people from the community to Jewish Studies events, he said.

“We need to do better with the younger generation,” he said. The programming content is important, to be sure, but good food and drink helps, Ayalon added. “It has to be so appealing that someone will say, ‘For this, I’m getting a babysitter.’”

Contact Adam Parker at aparker@postandcourier.com or 843-937-5902.

We're improving out commenting experience.

We’ve temporarily removed comments from articles while we work on a new and better commenting experience. In the meantime, subscribers are encouraged to join the conversation at our Post and Courier Subscribers group on Facebook.