Michael Opphenimer’s death impacts JCU

Megan Grantham, Campus Editor

“I think in a world in which Jews and Christians and Muslims don’t always get along so well, here was this wonderful display of interreligious love, which was very, very clear. And frankly, it made me want to be a part of this community,” recalled Noah Bickart, visiting assistant professor in the Theology and Religious Studies department, of his first meeting with Michael Oppenheimer.

Oppenheimer, a former professor of Theology and Religious Studies at John Carroll, passed away on Sept. 4 at age 77. Many faculty and students on campus recall his legacy with fondness.

Oppenheimer served as the spiritual leader and rabbi at Suburban Temple-Kol Ami in Cleveland from 1976-2002. Following that, he served as rabbi at the Emanuel Jacob Congregation of Mansfield.

In addition to his work as a rabbi, he taught courses at Baldwin Wallace College, the University of South Carolina and George Washington University, as well as JCU.

Oppenheimer had been a part-time instructor in the Theology and Religious Studies Department since 2005, and served as the Tuohy Fellow, funded by an endowment that sponsors the chair in interreligious studies.

He often taught courses on Judaism and interreligious studies on campus, and was a well-liked professor by students.

“He was one of the warmest and friendliest faculty members that we had, and I know that many students loved getting in his courses. They were always full,” said Ed Mish, administrative assistant in the Theology and Religious Studies Department.

Bickart, visiting assistant professor in Jewish and interreligious studies, teaches similar content to what Oppenheimer taught a few years ago. He explained that Oppenheimer paved the way for him to teach courses at JCU.

Whereas Oppenheimer was a part-time faculty member, Bickart teaches full-time on campus.

“I think Michael [Oppenheimer] was really instrumental in bringing a full-time professor of Jewish studies to campus,” said Bickart. “He thought it was really important that there be a full time professor here at John Carroll, so it’s really, in many ways, because of him that I’m here at all.”

In addition to being an engaging professor, Oppenheimer was a strong champion for Jewish students on campus. Bickart shared that at John Carroll, “we have a small but pretty intense Jewish student body, and sometimes they encounter things that make them uncomfortable as Jews, as a lot of minority groups do from time to time. And I think he was always a strong advocate for them.”

Sheila McGinn, former chair of the Theology and Religious Studies Department, was a close friend of Oppenheimer’s. “I never saw him not smiling. He always had quirky little jokes, and he was such a fun colleague to have around.”

McGinn explained the sadness around the department, and that the entire staff will miss Oppenheimer’s jovial presence. She and other faculty members are looking to find a way to honor Oppenheimer and his contributions to JCU.

“He helped to make the department the TRS department, one which is both the department of Theology and Religion,” said Bickart of Oppenheimer’s lasting impact. “That is, [it’s] not only devoted to the sort of internal Catholic process of trying to seek God in all things, but also in recognition that there are a variety of ways that human beings search for meaning.”