Gary Zola to retire from HUC-JIR and AJA

By Mollie Newman

Gary P. Zola has announced that, after more than 40 years, he will retire from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion as executive director of the Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives. In retirement, Zola plans to continue his wide-ranging public activities both locally and nationally. President Biden recently announced Zola’s appointment to the United States Holocaust Memorial Council. Zola also intends to devote more time to scholarly research so that he can complete several book projects in the years ahead.  

Rabbi Gary P. Zola

Ordained as a rabbi in 1982, Gary Zola earned his Ph.D. in American Jewish History in 1991 from HUC-JIR. He has served at the school for more than 40 years in numerous capacities, including the past three decades as a member of the school’s faculty. Prior to joining the faculty, Zola served as the national dean of admissions, student affairs, and alumni relations for 16 years. During his tenure in this position, Zola oversaw the admission of nearly 900 rabbinical students.

In addition to his role as professor, in 1998 Zola became the American Jewish Archives’ second executive director. At the same time, he became editor of The Marcus Center’s award-winning publication, The American Jewish Archives Journal. Under Zola’s leadership, the AJA has become the largest free-standing research center dedicated solely to the study of the American Jewish experience.

“As the American Jewish Archives’ director, Dr. Gary P. Zola refurbished its headquarters, greatly expanded its holdings, developed its web presence, upgraded its international fellowship program, and elevated its journal into one of the best in the field – all this while continuing to teach, write, mentor and conduct research,” said Jonathan D. Sarna – Joseph H. & Belle R. Braun Professor of American Jewish History, Brandeis University and chief historian, The Weitzman National Museum of American Jewish History – and Zola’s Ph.D. advisor. “The whole field of American Jewish History stands in Dr. Zola’s debt.”

Zola has published ten books and dozens of articles which provide insight on the American Jewish experience. He recently published “New Perspectives in American Jewish History,” co-edited with Mark A. Raider. His documentary volume titled “We Called Him Rabbi Abraham: Lincoln and American Jewry” (2014) was a finalist for the National Jewish Book Award.

National organizations have sought Zola’s expertise. In addition to President Biden’s recent appointment, on three other occasions President Barack Obama appointed Zola to serve as a member of the U.S. Commission for the Preservation of America’s Heritage Abroad. In 2006, Zola became the first American Jewish historian to receive appointment to the Academic Advisory Council of the congressionally recognized Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission.

Zola is devoted to his local Cincinnati community and volunteers his talents to many humanitarian causes. He is currently on the advisory board for EquaSion’s A Mighty Stream, an interfaith racial justice initiative, and is an honorary co-chair of the 2023 Cincinnati Festival of Faiths. He sits on the America 250-Ohio Scholarship Committee within the Ohio Commission for America’s 250th anniversary and the ArtWorks’ New Monuments Committee.

“I was tremendously blessed by my association and friendship with Rabbi Gary Zola, said Bishop Marvin Frank Thomas, Sr., presiding prelate, First Episcopal District, Christian Methodist Episcopal Church.  “I am convinced that his life’s work and journey is interwoven in his commitment to living out the words of Micah 6:8, in that he is committed to doing justice, institutionally and individually, he loves kindness, and he endeavors to walk humbly with God every day of his life.”

Among a long list of local awards he has received are The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Legacy Award and the Lighthouse Youth and Family Services Beacon of Light Humanitarian Award. Thomas More University conferred him with a Doctor of Humane Letters degree for his “dedication to the principles that are the foundation of our nation.” This past April, the Urban League of Greater Southwestern Ohio honored Zola as one of six outstanding community leaders.

“Dr. Zola is one of the most impressive Cincinnati leaders I know. He has an incredible heart, builds really meaningful relationships across all sorts of communities, and boy can he give a speech,” said Greg Landsman, U.S. Congressman for Ohio’s first district. 

As of July 1, Zola became the AJA’s executive director emeritus. After completing a planned 18-month sabbatical, he will officially take on the role of the Edward M. Ackerman Family Distinguished Professor Emeritus of the American Jewish Experience and Reform Jewish History.

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