By Deb Silverthorn
Professor Richard Golden, the founder of the University of North Texas’ Jewish and Israel Studies Program (JISP), is retiring this week after a 47-year career as an academic professional.
“I’ve done my best and I believe we have a great program, one of few like it in the country,” said Golden. “I’m very proud.”
Born in Brooklyn, New York, and raised in St. Petersburg, Florida, Golden is the son of Sylvia and Herbert, of blessed memory, and brother of Robert. The young Golden learned a strong work ethic as he worked at his father’s Quality Plumbing Supply Company in high school and during school breaks from college.
Ironically, the future leader of Jewish academia was not a fan of attending services or Sunday school. He recalls Congregation B’nai Israel’s Rabbi Morris Chapman saying he wouldn’t allow Golden to celebrate his bar mitzvah — that he wasn’t serious, didn’t pay attention and never showed up. “I made it,” he says with a laugh. “It all worked out.”
Golden’s mother passed on a passion for history, which her son pursued after graduating from Boca Ciega High School. He graduated with a B.A. in history and a minor in economics from Vanderbilt University, with high honors for his extensive work with his mentor, Robert Isherwood. He earned his M.A. in early modern French history and his Ph.D. with a concentration on early modern French history at The Johns Hopkins University. It was at the latter that Golden studied under the inspirational Professor Orest Ranum, now professor emeritus.
“From my first experience Dr. Ranum was brilliant and he opened my mind in so many ways,” said Golden, who studied in France for a year while preparing his dissertation and who is still in contact with Ranum. “He’s always encouraged innovation and looking at education through a new lens.”
Golden met his future wife, Hilda, at a Vanderbilt fraternity party, where he was an AEPi. Her parents were survivors of the Holocaust and she was born in a displaced persons camp in Turino, Italy. “I saw her,” he remembers, “and said to myself, ‘Self, I’m going to marry that girl.’”
The couple, who have been together since their first date, married on June 8, 1969, and raised daughters Davina (Rob) Weinstein and Irene (Dan) Meehan and son Jeremy. Their family now includes grandchildren Izzy Kreider, Aaron and Shayna Weinstein and Lily, Jacqi and Charlie Meehan.
For many years the Goldens have been members of Congregation Kol Ami in Flower Mound, where Hilda started the congregation’s gift shop, Simcha Source.
“Richard made this program happen. Everyone involved has taken our cue from the energy and zest he’s brought to every facet,” said Kol Ami’s Rabbi Geoffrey Dennis, who has taught in UNT’s JISP since its inception. “The reality he invented is nothing short of amazing.”
Golden, author and editor of six books and more than 100 book reviews, spent 20 years at Clemson University before coming to UNT in 1994. After seven years as chair of UNT’s department of history, Golden founded the Jewish Studies Program (renamed Jewish and Israel Studies Program in 2014). Supporters included Audre and Bernard Rapoport, the family of Howard and Leslie Schultz, Ken and Sherry Goldberg, Michael and Stephanie Hirsh, Helen Waldman, Howard and Maggie Watt and Barbara and Donald Zale.
“As a family committed to Jewish education, we were impressed by Richard’s deep knowledge and passion for helping students, most of whom were not Jewish, understand our people, history, land and culture,” said Jaynie Schultz. “Richard’s willingness to be inclusive, his vision and his tireless efforts, have created a strong program that has influenced thousands.”
Over the years, Golden has raised $1.5 million to support the JISP. Some 94 students enrolled the first year, and by the 2019-20 year that number had increased more than tenfold, to 986. Over the years, as a professor, department chair and founder of the Jewish and Israel Studies program, he has been a trusted expert when issues of antisemitism have arisen.
“The Jewish Studies Program and Dr. Golden have elevated UNT’s reputation regarding Jewish life on-campus and in our greater community,” said alumnus Adam Rosenfield. “In providing classes from Jewish Political Theory to Israeli Cinema and hosting extraordinary guests and events, Dr. Golden raised the Judaism discourse at UNT. Because of his work, many students have become leaders in the conversations of Jewish life.”
As someone who was interested in Middle Eastern politics, former student Susan Perry Brokhin remembers Golden as a go-getter.
“The classes that came from the Jewish Studies program were nothing less than fascinating and engaging. Dr. Golden provided us with so much and he never failed to encourage students’ efforts to expand their Jewish experience,” said Brokhin, founder of UNT’s StandWithUs initiative and now a member of the JISP advisory board. After graduation, Brokhin moved to Jerusalem with a Joint Distribution Committee fellowship, returning to serve as political affairs director at the Consulate General of Israel in Houston.
Golden, who will serve on the JISP Advisory Board in his retirement, intends to read, spend time with his children and grandchildren and finish writing a biography of Louis-Marie, Vicomte de Noailles, a prominent figure in the French and American revolutions.
“Dr. Golden’s devotion to Judaism, to Israel and to each of us,” said former student Rachel Planick Elliott, “was immensely valuable to me as a Jew and also as a human being in our world.”