Tribute: Rabbi Professor Michael Brown, 84, shaped the field of Jewish studies across Canada and internationally

Rabbi Professor Michael Brown, who helped establish and shape the Koschitzky Centre for Jewish Studies at York University, where he taught for half a century, died March 17, 2023, in Montreal, a few days before what would have been his 85th birthday.

Last year, Professor Brown’s influential contributions to Canadian Jewish Studies were publicly recognized by the Association for Canadian Jewish Studies which conferred upon him the prestigious Louis Rosenberg Distinguished Service Award.  Professor Brown’s lifetime accomplishments reach beyond Canadian Jewish studies, touching a range of academic disciplines and community building. Among his other important awards was the 2011 Medal of Honour presented to him by the Adam Mickiewicz University of Poznan, Poland, in recognition of his important international work in Holocaust and anti-racism education.

Professor Brown’s professional life bore the mark of a remarkable service ethos. The well-being of students, the development of impressive academic programs, and community service beyond the campus were all things that Professor Brown saw as his mandate and responsibility.

Jewish studies in Canada and Jewish communal life in this country bear his strong imprint. He was recruited to build programs in Jewish studies and in Jewish teacher education at York University in the mid-1960s, during an era when York University was first coming into its own, and Jewish studies in Canada was first coming into its own. When he began his career at York, Professor Brown held a BA from Harvard College and an MA from Columbia University, and had just received rabbinic ordination from the Jewish Theological Seminary. He had not yet finished his PhD, which he completed at the State University of New York at Buffalo while working full-time as a professor.

Over his long teaching career, Professor Brown developed an interdisciplinary range of courses, encompassing Jewish history, Holocaust studies, and Hebrew literature. Thousands of students at York benefitted from his teaching, as did students in Israel, Poland, and Germany. He valued partnerships between the university and the community, and saw himself as deeply immersed in both. All my colleagues at York’s Koschitzky Centre were recruited and hired under Professor Brown’s aegis, or hold endowed chairs that he had a key role in establishing. We benefitted from his gentle mentorship and inspiration.

For Professor Brown, the line between private and public life was porous. In both, his actions were governed by his ideals and his love of education and community. For many years he made a practice of hosting students in his home to mark the end of term. He felt it important for students to see the inside of a professor’s home, especially the walls lined with shelves sagging under the weight of books. He stimulated generations of students to pursue research projects in Jewish studies, careers in Jewish communal life, education, and human rights.

In addition to helping establish the Israel and Golda Koschitzky Centre for Jewish Studies at York, and serving for many years as its director, Professor Brown helped create and nurture York’s unique program in Jewish teacher education. 

His published works reflect the broad scope of his interest and commitments, and also his talent for collaboration:  Jew or Juif? Jews, French Canadians, and Anglo-Canadians,1759-1914; Teaching Teachers (with Alex Pomson and Sydney Eisen); Creating the Jewish Future (with Bernard Lightman); Approaches to Antisemitism: Context and Curriculum; Not Written in Stone: Jews, Constitutions, and Constitutionalism in Canada (with Daniel Elazar and Ira Robinson);

Jews and Judaism: A Bibliography of Jewish Canadiana, 1965-2000; A Guide to the Study of Jewish Civilization in Canadian Universities, and Encounter with Aharon Appelfeld (with Sara R. Horowitz). 

Together with his colleague Mark Weber, Professor Brown developed the unique Mark and Gail Appel Program in Holocaust and Anti-Racism Education, which brings an international group of students in education, journalism, history, literature and other fields to study the Holocaust and post-war responses from Germany and Poland, and Canadian perspectives as a means to engaging antisemitism, racism, genocide, and other forms of oppression. 

Professor Brown generously shared his expertise and experience in ways that benefitted the community – both in Canada and internationally: Toronto’s Associated Hebrew Schools, TanenbaumCHAT, the United Synagogue Day School, Camp Ramah’s North America-wide Mador program for emerging educators, Bet Sefer Le-Dugma in Jerusalem, the National Board of License for Teachers of Hebrew in North America and Academic Advisory Board, and the Moscow Center for University Teaching of Jewish Civilization and other institutions benefitted from his good judgment and passion for education.

Professor Brown served for many years as a member of the editorial advisory board of The Canadian Jewish News and on the editorial board of the Azrieli Foundation’s Memoirs publication project in its early years. He helped to found Congregation Beth Haminyan in Toronto, and often functioned as its unofficial rabbi.

Born in Scranton, Pa., in 1938, Professor Brown and his late wife Frankie made Toronto their home in 1968. After retiring from teaching, Professor Brown moved to Montreal. An intense source of pride was his three children and their respective spouses: Joshua, Matthew and Leah, and Rabba Abby and Rabbi Adam Scheier, and his grandchildren, Ozzie and Theo Brown; and Aviya, Ayelet, Annael, Allegra, and Arella Scheier. As deeply as Professor Brown’s colleagues and community feel his loss, theirs is deeper still.

With all of his accomplishments, Professor Brown was deeply humble, and a true mensch. He deflected attention to others and was generous with his praise. During the first few years of my marriage, I commuted between my job at an American university and my home in Toronto with my new Canadian husband. Colleagues in Jewish studies would hear “Canada” – and immediately ask, “Do you know Michael Brown.” I had not yet met him, but sought him out. Michael became a valued mentor, an esteemed colleague, and a dear friend. I learned from his example, enjoyed his warm wit, and was fortunate to have him in my life.

Sara Horowitz is a professor of Comparative Literature and Humanities and former Director of the Israel and Golda Koschitzky Centre for Jewish Studies at York University