Passings: Professor Emeritus Sydney Eisen


York University Professor Emeritus Sydney Eisen has died. The following is a message to the community written by York University Professor Kalman Weiser, the acting director of the Israel & Golda Koschitzky Centre for Jewish Studies.

Dear friends and colleagues,

Sadly, the Koschitzky Centre brings news of another loss in our community. University Professor Emeritus Sydney Eisen (1929-2022) was not only an esteemed scholar, who played an important role in shaping the development of York University but also the founding father of Jewish Studies at York. He launched our centre in 1989 and, together with colleagues Professors Michael Brown and Marty Lockshin, founded the Jewish Teacher Education Program that is an integral part of it.

Sydney Eisen
Sydney Eisen

European history, particularly Victorian intellectual history, was Professor Eisen’s area of academic specialization. But as he put it in an interview with the Canadian Jewish News in 1997, “I’m a Jew, Jewish things are my commitment in life.” His involvement with Jewish Studies at York began when, as a new faculty member in the late 1960s, he convinced the dean of the value of creating two positions in Jewish Studies – the very first at York. This led to the hiring of Professor Emeritus Michael Brown and the late Professor Sol Tanenzapf. In the mid-1970s, Eisen managed to persuade the Jewish community of Toronto to provide seed money for the creation of two additional positions that would later become funded by the University. The first of these positions was assumed by Professor Emeritus Marty Lockshin and the second is currently held by Professor Carl S. Ehrlich.

Professor Eisen’s commitment to Jewish education extended beyond the confines of the University, however. He shared this commitment with the Koschitzkys, working closely with members of the family to ensure the future of Jewish education at the primary and secondary levels in Toronto. Their collaboration was critical in the establishment of York’s Jewish Teacher Education Program, whose existence he considered crucial for Jewish communal life. He was also a lifetime member of the boards of the Associated Hebrew Schools and of the Community Hebrew Academy of Toronto (now TanenbaumCHAT).

Professor Eisen was born in Poland and came to Toronto at the age of six, earning a BA from the University of Toronto in 1950 and a doctorate from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore in 1957. He served on the faculty at Williams College and the City University of New York prior to returning to Toronto, and taught at the University of Toronto before joining York’s Department of History and Division of Humanities (today’s Department of Humanities). His contributions to York are numerous. They include his service as acting Chair of the Division of Humanities in 1967, as Chair of the Department of History from 1970-72, and as dean of the Faculty of Arts from 1973-78. He not only served as the inaugural director of the Centre for Jewish Studies from 1989-94, but also played an important role in the establishment of CERLAC (the Centre for Research in Latin American and Caribbean Studies) and the Victorian Studies Association of Ontario. In recognition of his exceptional contributions as a teacher, scholar, and administrator, he was awarded the prestigious title of University Professor two years prior to his retirement in 1995.

York University further honoured Professor Eisen by establishing a book prize in his name in the Faculty of Arts in 1978 and by electing him to the York University Founders Honour Society in 1999. The Jewish Federation of Greater Toronto conferred upon him both the Shem Tov Award in 1988 and the Ben Sadowski Medal (its highest award for volunteer service) in 1995. Colleagues published a Festschrift, the fruit of a conference convened in his honour, as a special issue of the journal The European Legacy in August 1996 (“Science and Religion in Modern Western Thought.” Eds. Bernard Zelechow and Bernard Lightman). After his retirement, Professor Eisen helped found a consulting firm, REF Consultants in Education, Inc.

Professor Eisen’s loss will be keenly felt, and his pioneering role in establishing Jewish Studies and the Jewish Teacher Education Program at York will not be forgotten. He was not only the father of Jewish Studies but also a mentor and friend to so many of us.

The Israel & Golda Koschitzky Centre for Jewish Studies extends its heartfelt condolences to his wife Doris, their children (and spouses) Daniel, Robert (Naomi), Sarah (Ian), and Miriam (Erle), and their grandchildren.

Baruch dayan ha’emet.

Professor Kalman Weiser
Acting Director
Israel & Golda Koschitzky Centre for Jewish Studies