Years ago, when Dr. Elisheva Carlebach heard of Rabbi Mordechai Jofen (now the rosh yeshivah of Yeshiva Beis Yosef) as a possible shidduch, she was, as she puts it, “afraid”—not of meeting the prospective chasan, but of meeting his mother, Rebbetzin Dr. Jean Jofen.
After coming to the US as a refugee from the Nazis, Dr. Jean Jofen had gone on to get a Ph.D. in Yiddish linguistics from Columbia University at the age of 29, while she was raising three (and later, four) children. She had a fluent command of Latin, German, French, English, Hebrew, Yiddish, Icelandic, Gothic and Sanskrit. It was an imposing list of accomplishments. “What would I say,” the young Elisheva mused, “to such a brilliant woman?” The question is almost comical, considering Dr. Carlebach Jofen’s own list of achievements.
A highly respected scholar of early modern Jewish history, she is now the Salo Wittmayer Baron Professor of Jewish History, Culture and Society at Columbia University, and she was previously a professor of Jewish History at Queens College and at the CUNY Graduate Center in New York City. She is the president of the American Academy for Jewish Research and a recipient of the National Jewish Book Award. Dr. Carlebach Jofen has also twice been a fellow at the National Endowment for the Humanities, and in 2003 she held a fellowship with the New York Public Library Center for Scholars and Writers.
From 2010 to 2011, Dr. Carlebach Jofen was a Tikvah Fellow at NYU Law School. And if that isn’t enough, she has also been chair of the Academic Advisory Council of the Center for Jewish History and the editor of the Association for Jewish Studies Review. In the academic world, Dr. Carlebach Jofen’s career is one to be admired. Ironically, the study of Jewish history was actually something she fell into by accident.
Her original plan was to go into social work in order to serve her community, following the example of the women who were most instrumental in her life: her “indomitable” maternal grandmother, Esther Katzenstein, who helped build the Washington Heights kehillah (where Dr. Carlebach Jofen spent her childhood); her mother, who raised her children with the utmost dedication; and her late mother-in-law, who, alongside her successful academic career, devoted herself to making matches for older singles. (Dr. Carlebach Jofen’s fears about meeting her future mother-in-law, by the way, were unfounded; Dr. Jofen turned out to be “the most down-to-earth, generous and warmhearted person imaginable.”) “Although each of them was very different from the others,” Dr. Carlebach Jofen recalls, “these women showed me that there are many different ways to contribute.
They were pioneers, each in her own right, of how to be committed to a Torah life, to family, to community, and to professional obligations, without shortchanging any of these interests.” After Dr. Carlebach Jofen took a course in Jewish history, her plans changed dramatically. “[It] changed my sense of what was possible.” Her passion for her subject, which focuses on Jews in Western Europe from 1500 to 1750, is palpable, especially to those she teaches. “[She’s a] great teacher,” raved one of her former students. “The history comes out like a fabulous story in her class.”
The period is packed with world-changing events such as the expulsion of the Jews from Spain, the introduction of the printing press and the establishment of vibrant Jewish communities in new places. “In so many respects,” Dr. Carlebach Jofen says, “it is a most dynamic period in Jewish history, and that quality draws me to it.” The consummate academic, she is calm and thoughtful; our interview was one of the rare ones I conducted via email, at her request, because she wanted to be able to give each of her answers careful consideration.
Like all mothers in the workplace, Dr. Carlebach Jofen is faced with the challenge of balancing work demands, which include teaching, writing, scholarly review, training graduate students and mentoring younger colleagues, with running a frum home. “It was not always easy to do this while raising a family, hosting large numbers of guests on Shabbos, and serving the community in other ways,” she admits. However, she believes that every woman can find a personal equilibrium. “There is no one ideal path for every woman. Each one has to actualize her potential in the way she feels will serve herself, her family, and her community in the best balance.”
One of the keys to this, she feels, are organized resources for working moms. “When it comes to arranging for child care, it is still every woman for herself,” she notes. “I don’t know one Jewish organization that helps [with this]. … One of the things I would like to see is our community being more proactive about child care.”
In many ways, it is full circle for Dr. Carlebach Jofen, who has a vision of the future for mothers based on the example set by the pioneering women in her family. “My way has been paved for me,” she says, “and I am grateful beyond measure for that.” And as she continues her influential work, Dr. Carlebach Jofen is paving the way for the next generation of women, who she believes should have the ability to be successful in whatever they do without sacrificing their mission of raising thriving Jewish families.