UTD professor has dedicated himself to Holocaust education
By Sharon Wisch-Ray
Congregation Nishmat Am will present its Ner Tamid Award to Dr. David Patterson at a gala luncheon Sunday, May 22. The festivities begin at noon at the Renaissance Hotel, 900 Lookout Drive in Richardson.
Patterson will be recognized for contributions to Nishmat Am and the Jewish community as teacher, writer, author and lecturer in the Holocaust, Jewish studies, literature and history. He is the Hillel A. Feinberg Distinguished Chair in Holocaust Studies at the Ackerman Center for Holocaust Studies at the University of Texas at Dallas.
Patterson and his wife of 35 years, Gerri, are members of Congregation Nishmat Am. They came to Dallas in 2010 from Memphis, where Patterson had taught at the University of Memphis since 1996.
Patterson said that when he was selected to receive the Ner Tamid Award, he at first thought perhaps they had made a mistake, and he was humbled and believed he would have a higher standard to live up to as an honoree.
Referring to the meaning of ner tamid as the eternal light, he said, “The Ner Tamid is a profound symbol of what Judaism is about and the light that the Jews emanate unto the nations as witnesses. The honor leads me to realize I have to strive on an even deeper level, to be witness to Torah, to the holiness of the human being, to the ethical urgency that Judaism brings. With God’s help, I’ll try to live up to it.”
Patterson is a well-known expert on the Holocaust. He is a fellow in the Institute for the Study of Global Antisemitism, Oxford University, and a winner of the National Jewish Book Award for “Emil L. Fackenheim: A Jewish Philosopher’s Response to the Holocaust.” He has presented topics on the Holocaust around the world and has published 40 books on the Holocaust, Jewish topics and antisemitism published or accepted for publication. He has also contributed chapters to edited volumes.
Patterson didn’t begin his career as an educator in Holocaust studies. Following his training in comparative literature at the University of Oregon, he began as an assistant professor of literature. In 1979, a student at the University of Oregon shared with him Elie Wiesel’s autobiography “Night.” Patterson said he was taken with the book, but didn’t know what so many things that were referenced actually meant.
“I realized immediately if I’m going to understand this book, or anything about the Holocaust, I need to do a lot of studying of Jewish tradition and texts, teachings of Judaism, Jewish history,” he said.
The “gift” from that 19-year-old student transformed Patterson’s life in more ways than one as his career path and ultimately his religion changed.
Patterson studied Judaism, Jewish history and the Holocaust for 10 years before he started teaching courses on Jewish studies and the Holocaust. By then, he was working at Oklahoma State University in Stillwater.
In 1986, at OSU, Patterson met his wife, Gerri, who at the time worked for the ADL in Dallas. She was on campus, delivering a lecture on the Holocaust. He had just begun teaching his first course on the Holocaust, the first ever at OSU.
Patterson attributes much of his success to his wife, who was born in New York City and raised in Jericho on Long Island. “She’s been a huge blessing to me, a true eishes chayil, supporting me in every way,” he says.
In fact, several of the books Patterson has written are based on more than 2,000 books on the Holocaust and another 2,000 on Jewish teachings and Jewish texts that Gerri brought with her into their marriage.
As the 1980s came to a close, Patterson said that through all the study of Jewish texts and Holocaust research, he realized that he had a Jewish soul. He completed his conversion in 1989. He has said that it is essential that the Holocaust be taught from a Jewish point of view when “teaching the Holocaust as the final solution to the Jewish Question.”
He said, “The Nazis had one view of what gives a human being value — namely race and a will to power — and one race has no connection to another in the Nazi view. In the Jewish view, we all come from one Creator, and it’s the holiness of the Creator in whose image we are created that gives value to every human being.”
He added, “I see my teaching as a form of testimony, a form of response to this radical assault on humanity.”
He sees the assault on the Jewish people and Israel as ongoing, especially in academia. “Anti-Zionism has become very fashionable, but in some ways, morally required. In other words, in many quarters of academia, you cannot be considered a moral person if you do not oppose the existence of the Jewish state.” He has dedicated himself to fighting back against these ideas.
Over the years, Patterson had many opportunities to visit with Elie Wiesel, the first coming in 1984 when he was at Harvard in a seminar on Russian literature. He considered Wiesel to be his teacher.
“Elie Wiesel said, ‘What begins with the Jews never ends with the Jews,’ and he also said, ‘What happens to humanity, happens to the Jews first,” Patterson said.
In addition to David’s teaching at UTD and many commitments to Holocaust education locally and abroad, the Pattersons enjoy engaging with the Nishmat Am community; both serve on the synagogue’s board of directors. The couple are parents of two daughters: Miriam, who teaches costume design at Allegheny College in Pennsylvania and will be beginning at Princeton in the fall, and Rachel, who is a pediatric neurologist in Santa Ana, California.
“We are especially grateful for David’s work enriching adult education at Nishmat Am through our ongoing Premier Speaker Series lectures. The partnerships Dr. Patterson crafted locally, nationally and internationally have greatly extended the reach of this remarkable lecture series via social media,” said Bill McManaway, Nishmat Am president.
Tickets for the gala luncheon start at $72 per person. To RSVP for the gala, call the Nishmat Am office at 972-618-2200 or 214-551-2314.