York to the Power of 50: Celebrating a gift of national importance

Family, friends and supporters celebrated the legacy and generosity of renowned Jewish scholar Rabbi W. Gunther Plaut earlier this month.

The event, held at York’s Clara Thomas Archives & Special Collections on Sunday, Nov. 2, celebrated his gifts of the Rabbi W. Gunther Plaut & Elizabeth S. Plaut Library and the Rabbi W. Gunther Plaut Intellectual Property Collection to York University. Honouring Plaut’s 96th birthday, the event also marked the launch of his book, Eight Decades: The Selected Writings of W. Gunther Plaut.

Right: From left, Carol Plaut, Rabbi W. Gunther Plaut, Rabbi Jonathan V. Plaut and Judith Plaut

The Canadian Cultural Property Export Review Board, an independent tribunal of the federal Department of Canadian Heritage, has certified the Plaut Library as cultural property of outstanding significance and national importance.

“Many scholars here at York and at our Centre for Jewish Studies will benefit from these generous gifts,” said York University President & Vice-Chancellor Mamdouh Shoukri.

The library, named for Plaut and his late wife, includes more than 4,000 books Plaut used for his writing and sermons. It has found a new home in the Clara Thomas Archives & Special Collections.

Above: From left, Rabbi W. Gunther Plaut, Michael Moir, Cynthia Archer and Centre for Jewish Studies Founding Director Sydney Eisen

Plaut’s son, Rabbi Jonathan V. Plaut, said the seeds for the gift had been laid much earlier. “My father had spoken to us years ago about donating his collection to York,” he said. “He chose York University because of its excellence in Jewish studies and because of his relationship with the school and members of the faculty.”

“This is the kind of collection that will have value 100 years hence,” University Librarian Cynthia Archer said of the Rabbi W. Gunther Plaut & Elizabeth S. Plaut Library, which includes out-of-print volumes of the Bible and Talmud. Many of the books bear Plaut’s handwritten notes or have been bookmarked by him to locate a significant passage.

Left: Vice-President, Development Susan Mullin (left) from the York University Foundation joins York President & Vice-Chancellor Mamdouh Shoukri to present to Rabbi W. Gunther Plaut a framed YFile about his gift

Guests at the event commented on the impressive nature and broad range of subjects contained in the library. In addition to works on religious scholarship, there are books devoted to science, ethics, politics, history, race relations, military chaplaincy and popular fiction. A selection on display for the day’s event included books of Jewish law, biographies on Albert Einstein and collected adventures of Pogo, the comic strip character.

“When I assigned students to put the books up on the shelves, the project always went far slower than I thought it should because they started reading,” said Michael Moir, University archivist and head of the Clara Thomas Archives & Special Collections. “And the comment that came back to me was how struck they were by the interdisciplinary nature of this library. It truly is a very important gift.”

York’s Centre for Jewish Studies, meanwhile, is the recipient of the Rabbi W. Gunther Plaut Intellectual Property Collection, including the copyright to Plaut’s published works. Sara Horowitz, director of the Centre for Jewish Studies, explained the importance of Plaut’s work. “His theological thinking, both his way of applying modern methodologies to Jewish texts and his way of applying Jewish sources to modern issues is really significant for anyone who wants to study not only the development of Reform Judaism, but religion as a field altogether,” said Horowitz.

The centre’s associate director, Eric Lawee, said he hopes the proceeds from the copyright royalties will eventually support academic conferences, publications etc. He described the collection as “one-of-a-kind” and as a wonderful resource for graduate students researching master’s and PhD papers.

Right: Copies of Rabbi Plaut’s book Eight Decades: The Selected Writings of W. Gunther Plaut were available at the event

Born in Germany, Rabbi W. Gunther Plaut moved to the US in 1935, where he became a rabbi in 1939. He served with the U.S. Army’s 104th Infantry Division in Belgium and Germany during the Second World War, and was present at the capture of the first concentration camp in Germany. After the war, Plaut had pulpits in Chicago and St. Paul, Minnesota, and from 1961 to 1977 was senior rabbi of the Holy Blossom Temple in Toronto. Considered a leading authority of Reform Judaism, he has published more than 25 books and 1,000 articles on philosophy, religion and other topics. His greatest work, The Torah: A Modern Commentary, has been described as essential reading for Jews and religious scholars of all faiths. Plaut is also widely applauded for his lifelong commitment to human rights. From 1978 to1985 he served as vice-chair of the Ontario Human Rights Commission.

Eight Decades is Plaut’s final book. At the event, Plaut’s son explained that he had found the almost completed book stored among his father’s papers. “I think that it’s the final tribute to close a very important scholarly aspect of his 25-plus books,” said Rabbi Jonathan W. Plaut.

Both gifts support York University Foundation’s York to the Power of 50 fundraising campaign – currently at more than $167 million toward its $200-million goal.