Lenfest 2015 Winner: Rebecca Kobrin

Eve Glasberg
March 08, 2015

Columbia’s urban setting is central to Rebecca Kobrin’s teaching and research. The Russell and Bettina Knapp Associate Professor of American Jewish History encourages her students to venture beyond Morningside Heights and learn how the city has been shaped over time.

It was on a walking tour of the Lower East Side with students in her Jewish migration course that Kobrin began to consider the role that unregulated immigrant banks played in American economic history. The manuscript she is now completing, Credit to the Nation: Jewish Immigrant Bankers and American Finance, 1870-1930, examines the interplay of these institutions on U.S. immigration policies, banking regulation and economic development.

Kobrin, who came to Columbia in 2006, teaches and writes on an array of topics related to Jewish history and the history of immigration from the 19th century on. Her first book, Jewish Bialystok and Its Diaspora, examined 19th century Russian Jewish migration through a transnational lens. It was a National Jewish Book Award finalist and was named the best book in modern Jewish history by the Association for Jewish Studies in 2012.

Fostering students in their research and writing is what Kobrin says she finds most fulfilling. Her undergraduate students, while eager to learn, often find it hard to suspend hindsight and see the past on its own terms. She requires them to read and interpret historical documents, and encourages in-class discussions to make sense of those texts.

She takes a different approach with her graduate students, who “are akin to apprentices,” she says. “I train them how to read in several dimensions at once, contemplating how narrative, analysis and historiography should be brought together. I help them find their voice as writers, and show them how to be better teachers.”

For her undergraduate course Immigrant New York, Kobrin says she is indebted to the late Michael Katz, a mentor at the University of Pennsylvania, where she earned her Ph.D. Katz believed that a university should not isolate itself from the surrounding community and modeled a form of engagement that inspires her still. All students enrolled in Immigrant New York are required to volunteer at the Riverside Language Program, an organization that teaches English as a Second Language (ESL) to recent New York City immigrants.

“Immigrant New York demands much from the students beyond the classroom. It empowers them to extend the skills they have gained at Columbia to relevant, real world issues,” Kobrin says.