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Lillian Abensohn: Driving Force Behind AU Center for Israel Studies

By Patty Housman

Michael Brenner and Lillian Klein Abensohn

Since its establishment in 1998, American University’s Center for Israel Studies (CIS) has grown into a national leader in the academic study of modern Israel’s history, culture, multiethnic democracy, and complex geopolitical challenges.

CIS’ progress has been made possible with the dedication of a committed community of supporters, including long-time advocate Lillian Klein Abensohn and her late husband Seymour. The Abensohns provided critical financial backing for the creation of the Seymour and Lillian Abensohn Endowed Chair in Israel Studies. The Abensohn endowment has been supplemented by generous donations from numerous friends of AU and members of the Washington, DC, Jewish community, as well as close personal friends of the Abensohns.

Michael Brenner, an internationally renowned scholar who started Germany’s first Jewish history and culture program, joined the Center in 2013 as the Seymour and Lillian Abensohn Endowed Chair. Today, under Brenner’s leadership, CIS sponsors dozens of public programs each year—conferences, discussions, lectures, performances, and exhibits—bringing some of Israel’s brightest minds and ideas to the AU campus.


A Need and a Vision

In the 1990s Lillian Klein Abensohn first came to American University as an adjunct literature professor. In 1998, to mark the 50th anniversary of the modern state of Israel, AU economics professor Howard Wachtel was charged with organizing a celebration at AU. Instead, he came up with the idea of creating a Center for Israel studies. It would serve a real need at AU: a place for students to go and learn about the country and people of Israel.

Wachtel approached the Abensohns to support the fledgling Center, which they did enthusiastically. Following her husband’s passing, Lillian dedicated herself to commemorating him with the creation of a named academic chair—in the study of the Israel that her husband loved. She threw herself into fundraising for the chair endowment, raising the first million dollars within a year. “It was the best thing for me,” she said. “In my husband’s absence, it gave me a purpose and stopped me from falling into grief.”

Laura Cutler, managing director of the Center, says that Lillian always understood the importance of placing a top-notch Israel scholar at CIS. “It is wonderful that Lillian has been able to see her vision come to fruition with the hiring of Michael Brenner. She has seen AU continue to participate in the leadership of the field of Israel Studies, attracting bright young scholars who want to work with Professor Brenner and AU's faculty.”


Continuing the Work

Lillian continues to actively participate in the leadership of the Center for Israel Studies by serving on its council, says Cutler. “On a personal level, Lillian is an inspiration as a philanthropist and a modern intellectual; she continues to be fully engaged in the work of the Center, offering encouragement and great advice, and is a fixture at CIS events." Most recently Lillian enhanced her support to new levels, establishing the Abensohn Visiting Scholars Endowment, providing essential resources and strengthening CIS’ work to bring global Israel Studies leaders to the AU community and our nation’s capital.

Lillian says she is always astonished at the quality and depth of CIS events and is intensely proud that she has a hand in it. She is delighted by the work of the chair that she helped make possible. “Michael Brenner is marvelous,” she says. “He has a global perspective and deep connections all over the world. I am forever impressed at the way he has developed the Center. And Laura Cutler is a wonder woman of event organization and keeping the ship afloat.”


An Ongoing Legacy

Lillian has contributed to American University in many ways over the past twenty years, says Brenner. "First as a gifted professor teaching literature and specializing in Bible, and then with her vision to establish a chair in Israel Studies. What characterizes Lillian is that she did not stop with her idea, but turned it into a permanent fixture at AU by contributing substantial funds and working tirelessly to get others to contribute to it,” he says. “And Lillian continues to productively and enthusiastically participate in the development of the Center for Israel Studies on its council.”

Brenner and the AU community are grateful for Lillian’s ongoing dedication and support. “She and her late husband Seymour have made it possible for all AU students and the greater DC community to learn about Israel from an academic perspective."


For information on CIS initiatives, as well as how your vision can create a legacy at American University, contact Elizabeth Harless, assistant dean of development for the College of Arts and Sciences at (202) 885-5907 or harless@american.edu, or visit the College development website at american.edu/cas/alumni/support.cfm