By Julia Olson
Dr. Gary Zola, director of the American Jewish Archives since 1998, will retire June 30, 2023, becoming the AJA’s Director Emeritus as of July 1. Zola, who is also a professor at HUC Cincinnati, will then begin an eighteen month sabbatical after which he will become the Edward M. Ackerman Family Distinguished Professor Emeritus of the American Jewish Experience and Reform Jewish History, effective January 1, 2025. Dr. Zola has dedicated more than forty years of service to the historic Hebrew Union College. He was ordained at the college in 1982 and received his doctorate in American Jewish History from the school nine years later, in 1991.
Prior to his work at the AJA, Dr. Zola served as the National Dean of Admissions, Student Affairs, and Alumni Relations from 1982-1998. Zola himself felt the call to become a rabbi through his activity in the Jewish youth movement, so it was from that same group that he sought out future rabbis who might be interested in attending HUC. “It was my rabbinate. I crafted in my own mind this idea that everyone has a rabbinate. Everyone has rabbinic duties. Mine is to find people and try to encourage the best of them to come to our school. I threw myself into this. Everyone who went through admissions when I was dean will tell you, I began by identifying high school students, ” Zola said. He dedicated his time to recruiting these students, often keeping in contact with them throughout their college careers. He cultivated relationships with many of them over the course of four or five years, recruited them to HUC, and still maintains relationships with them today. Many of his recruits are now senior rabbis, serving pulpits all over the country. This, as Dr. Zola said, was his rabbinate. This was the world of colleagues he had helped to shape through his work at HUC. During his time as National Dean of Admissions, Dr. Zola oversaw the admission of nearly nine hundred rabbinical students to the College-Institute.
When he began as the director of the AJA in 1998, he was succeeding Dr. Jacob Rader Marcus, his friend and mentor. The American Israelite spoke to Dr. Zola in the March of 1998, in an interview during which he visited the grave of Dr. Marcus. Zola’s appointment to the position, he said, had come as a surprise. Dr. Marcus had not spoken of a successor. Indeed, the role remained unfilled three years after his death, until Dr. Zola was appointed. The faculty felt that it was essential that the new director was someone who could also serve as a professor at the school. Dr. Zola met all of the qualifications for the position. In the same March 1998 issue of the American Israelite, the president of HUC said “Zola understands the Reform Jewish community, where it is, and where it needs to be. He is loyal to the College and is a real teacher and mentor to the students.”
Zola more than fulfilled what could have been envisioned for the AJA. During his tenure there, he worked to update the facility and to create a new edifice that mirrored the importance of what was inside. “I look at this building and I take great pride in it. It required fundraising, arm twisting, and fighting. When people look at it, I want them to see in the building the significance of what which it contains. I couldn’t be prouder of that work. That took many years.” In that time that Dr. Zola has served the AJA, it has become the largest free-standing research center focused on the study of American Jewry.
According to the 1998 article in The Israelite, Dr. Zola paused as he left the Walnut Hills Cemetery and said, “I would like to think he [Marcus] would have confidence in me.” It’s a confidence that could not have been misplaced, as Dr. Zola created in the AJA an educational institution responsible for the preservation of millions of documents attesting to the developments of American Judaism. Nothing else like the AJA here in Cincinnati exists anywhere else in the world. “There is no rabbinical seminary anywhere in the world that has anything comparable to the AJA. It doesn’t exist.”
During our interview I asked Dr. Zola was his main piece of advice would be to rabbinical students who are about to enter a pulpit. “Authority comes from the quality of your learning,” he said. “My advice is to continue to learn and to strive hard to make that a high priority. Never miss an opportunity to enrich yourself. That’s my advice for success.” Following his retirement, Dr. Zola will most certainly be following his own advice. “I love what I study. I may be retiring from HUC, but I am rewiring for something else. I don’t need more time to play golf. I made this decision for other reasons. I intend to continue to advocate as best I can for the things that I love and that I believe in.”
As for the future of the historic Hebrew Union College, Dr. Zola believes that institutions like the AJA and the Klau Library are key to its future. “My vision of rabbinical education is that it’s inexorably tied to these institutions. That’s what we stand for.” Then, reflecting on what Dr. Marcus might have said in this moment, Dr. Zola added, “[Marcus] used to say ‘good rabbis will drive out the bad.’ I hope that’s true. To me, a good rabbi is a learned rabbi. Every rabbi has to be a good human being. We have these resources. I would love to see them used to the fullest so that the future of American Israel will be certain and secure.” For Dr. Zola, rabbinical education at HUC is “inexorably tied” to the AJA and the Klau Library. If Dr. Marcus’ vision was the enrichment of rabbis and the broader community, the preservation of the American Jewish experience, and the advocacy for students to have continual access to these resources, Dr. Zola has more than fulfilled it.