Our colleague Bruce Rosenstock, professor of Religion and president of CFA from 2014-2017,
died at the beginning of January. He was a man and scholar of commitment, verve, and
compassion who worked tirelessly at the university in the Senate, AAUP chapter, and CFA to
speak up for those whose voices and causes most needed support.
Bruce’s father escaped Germany in 1938. His work as a rabbi took the family to several states
before ending up on the south side of Chicago, to which Bruce felt an attachment throughout
his life. An early spur to labor activism might have come when his father worked for a time at
Chicago Circle (now UIC), until getting fired for participating in a labor action.
After undergraduate study at Columbia and graduate school at Princeton, Bruce moved in 1978
to Stanford as an ABD in Classics, where the PhD caught up to him a year later. Harriet Murav
recalls studying Plato’s “Republic” in a class Bruce taught that same year, her first as a graduate
student. Their lives went various ways until that initial acquaintance evolved a decade later into
a lasting partnership and marriage.
Professional life brought ups and downs. The exploitative side of academic labor became Bruce’s reality after tenure was denied at Stanford and he maintained a toehold in academia by
teaching adjunct per course at community colleges. A lecturer position at UC-Davis then
provided some stability as he transitioned to research in Jewish Studies, after which he moved
to Illinois with Harriet in 2002, joining the Department of Religion.
Bruce got into digital humanities before that was a thing, and the output of his NSF-funded
multi-media digital library “Folk Literature of the Sephardic Jews” is archived online at
http://sephardifolklit.illinois.edu. He assembled a team of graduate assistants to help and
taught himself to script in Perl to manage the data. Harriet recalls this period of life as being full
of fun group dinners with the students.
His inquisitive mind continued to quest in new directions. After settling in at Illinois, Bruce
pursued research on German Jewish philosophy, which led to two published books and the
collaborative translation project on which he continued to work last year even as his health
Strong threads of justice and fairness, and empathy for the underdog, wove through Bruce’s
life. He did not flinch from the criticism that would follow as he spoke up in support of those
who needed it, such as the Students for Justice in Palestine. He could be counted on to raise
uncomfortable truths to colleagues and to the university administration. As he said to one
campus group last year: “If we’re not going to take a position then what’s the point of the
The three years Bruce served as president of CFA, from 2017-2017, came in tumultuous times.
The union organizing drive faced stiff headwinds on the tenure track side, with three union partners to manage and opponents on campus who did not hesitate to smear our integrity.
Then the Salaita controversy erupted. The administration’s malfeasance and interference by
the Board of Trustees demanded resistance, despite the enormous energy that this effort
sucked out of union organizing. Throughout it all, Bruce kept his good humor and continued to
step up as CFA president in years when it was difficult to find willing candidates. The union
drive ended with partial success (three cheers for NTFC!), after which Bruce helped begin
reframing CFA’s goals to make an impact as a campus advocacy group.
To close on a personal note: Bruce sold encyclopedias door to door for a time earlier in his life,
which proved to be good training for the hard knocks of union organizing. I gained confidence
just by watching him engage on office visits, approaching the tough nuts with as much
enthusiasm as the low-hanging fruit. On campus and off, Bruce never used two words when
three would do, which made him a good friend to enjoy a beer with. I only wish we’d had time
for one more.
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