Since its beginnings as King's College, Columbia University has fostered one of the most distinguished and longest-standing traditions in the academic study of Jewish civilization:
- Samuel Johnson, the first president of King's College, exhorted his students to study Hebrew writings, both for their theological value and for the intrinsic beauty of the language.
- Myles Cooper, Samuel Johnson's successor, stressed Hebrew instruction in King's College in 1773. He noted that Hebrew was a subject to be taught by "proper masters."
- Gershom Mendes Seixas, appointed a trustee of Columbia College in 1784, provided an early example of excellence in Jewish scholarship.
Interest in Hebrew languages and literature, as well as in the history of Jews in America, grew in the nineteenth century. In the 1880s Columbia led the way toward modern Judaic studies with new programs of instruction in Semitic languages. Temple Emanu-El gave its generous support in 1887 for a lectureship to be free of "all religious bias," and Columbia trustees appointed Richard J. H. Gottheil to a chair in Rabbinic Literature and Semitic Languages. His appointment also led to the enrichment of Columbia University's magnificent Hebrew collection. In 1868, Temple Emanu-El had bought a large collection of Hebrew manuscripts and books, many of which came from the libraries of famous Jewish scholars such as Rabbi Jacob Emden of Altona (1697–1776) and Joseph Almanzi of Padua (1801–60). The trustees of Temple Emanu-El presented this collection to Columbia in 1892 in recognition of the importance of the University's establishment of a permanent chair in Rabbinic Literature.
The collection has continued to expand to this day. It now comprises some 60,000 Hebrew and Yiddish titles, in addition to its large holdings of Jewish scholarly works in Western, Russian, and Slavic languages. The University's Rare Book and Manuscript Library houses 28 Hebrew incunabula, over 300 sixteenth-century printed books, and more than 1,000 manuscripts. In 1947 the library acquired the magnificent Oko-Gebhardt Spinoza Collection, consisting of almost 4,000 books by and about the Dutch Jewish philosopher.
In 1930 Salo Wittmayer Baron was appointed Nathan J. Miller Professor of Jewish History, Literature and Institutions, the first chair in Jewish history to be established at a secular university in the Western world.
In 1952 Columbia appointed the distinguished linguist and Yiddishist Uriel Weinreich as Atran Professor of Yiddish Language, Literature and Culture. Professor Weinreich established at Columbia University the first graduate program in Yiddish studies in the United States.
Perhaps more than anyone, Salo Wittmayer Baron left an indelible stamp on Jewish studies at Columbia University and throughout the scholarly world. His multidisciplinary approach to Judaism, and his interpretation of Judaica as the whole of the Jewish experience in all times, has prevailed and led to Columbia's preeminence in the field. He brought to Columbia's history department the highest level of Jewish scholarship. Professor Baron's years in Morningside Heights saw productivity of prodigious scale in monumental writings on the social and religious history of the Jews. His scholarship illumined the Jewish experience by joining the social sciences, the humanities, and the traditional study of Hebrew.
In 1980 a group of devoted sponsors united to endow the Salo Wittmayer Baron Chair in Jewish History, Culture and Society to honor this outstanding historian and humanist. Professor Yosef H. Yerushalmi, an authority on the history of Spanish and Portuguese Jewry both before and after the expulsion of 1492, was invited to join the Columbia faculty as Baron professor and director of the Center for Israel and Jewish Studies. It was a particularly fitting appointment as Professor Yerushalmi received his Ph.D. at Columbia in 1966 under Professor Baron himself.
The Leonard B. Kaye Chair in Hebrew and Comparative Literature was endowed in 1988 with the appointment of Professor Dan Miron. The Russell and Bettina Knapp Chair in American Jewish History was endowed in 1990 with the appointment of Professor Arthur A. Goren. Professor David Weiss-Halivni was appointed professor of religion in 1987 and named Lucius N. Littauer Professor of Classical Jewish Civilization in 1995.
Because Judaica ranges over many academic disciplines, Jewish studies are not isolated in one department at Columbia. They are integrated among a variety of disciplines. Jewish history is taught within the Department of History; Jewish religion in the Department of Religion; Yiddish language, literature, and folklore in the Department of Germanic Languages and Literatures; Hebrew language and literature in the Department of Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures; and modern Israel in the Middle East Institute. Thus students are trained in one academic field with crossfertilization through contact with other disciplines.