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Maurice Bernard Pekarsky

PEKARSKY, MAURICE BERNARD (1905–1962), Hillel director. Born in Jedwavne, Poland, Pekarsky came to the United States with his family and settled in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He attended the University of Michigan, received his B.A. cum laude in 1930, and went on to study at the University of California and then at the University of Iowa with famed social psychologist and close friend Kurt *Lewin. He was ordained at the Jewish Institute of Religion and then joined the Hillel Foundations, where he remained for the rest of his life. He directed the Hillel Foundation at Cornell (1933–37) and Northwestern (1937–40), and then moved to the University of Chicago from 1940 onward, taking five years off in 1950 to move to Jerusalem, where he established the Hillel program at The Hebrew University. Within Hillel, he was responsible for the establishment of the National Hillel Summer Institute, which he guided, and also headed its department of leadership training. He could have been national director but felt most at home on the campus, most at ease with students. Abram Sachar, who recruited him for Hillel, said of Pekarsky, "His was no negative faith. He was serenely positive in his relationship to a living God.… [He] had an inner fire that warmed without burning, that glowed without searing, and legions of students carried that brightness away with them from his presence."

His medium of expression was the spoken word. He was a teacher, not a writer, and he was keenly aware that the printed word is frozen into finality. His written work consists largely of incomplete notes for speeches, which he continually reworked in the search for greater coherence and clarity of expression. Pekarsky's lectures and class notes were published by Hillel in tribute to his work and his mind. He tried to synthesize faith and reason; to unite the world of the East and the West. A firmly committed believer, he was more interested in psychology than theology.

Alfred *Jospe, his friend and colleague, summed up his legacy. "He gave all those he encountered an awareness of the importance of the dialectical method in the education process.… If you asked him a question, you did not get an answer, but a reformulated question," deeper, more profound, more insistent than the one that was asked. He was as eager to learn as to teach – eager to learn so he might teach.

Jospe said that "under his leadership the Hillel Foundation at the University of Chicago became a unique intellectual and cultural center for the entire campus community, a forum for the study and discussion of vital issues of moral and social significance. He attracted some of the great minds on the faculty of the University of Chicago to Hillel" not only to speak but to learn. It was a tradition that empowered his successors and served as an example to others.


Alfred Jospe (ed.), The Legacy of Maurice Pekarsky (1965).