By Stacey Dresner
WORCESTER – When Mary Jane Rein was a child she loved to read Greek mythology.
“I was always fascinated by mythology and Greek history,” she recalls.
This fascination led Rein to earn a PhD in Classical Art and Archaeology from Harvard University. For several years she worked as an archaeologist in Greece, Israel, and Turkey.
Today she is co-executive director of the Strassler Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at Clark University. She says she sees some connection between her background in archeology and the work of the Strassler Center.
“From day one when I came to the center I have embraced everything that we do. I feel like I’m getting my second PhD in a way because I’m obviously afield from where I began my academic life,” she says. “Our program is very much rooted in the history department. I’m a lover of history but I was never trained as a historian…I learned the discipline of archeology. Historians use a different set of tools and methodology to learn about the past. Archeologists use their own tools and methodologies to learn from excavations. It’s fascinating to me now that that has become a tool of learning about the more recent past. You will read about excavations at Sobibor. So it is very interesting to me that there is this now convergence and that archeology is a tool increasingly being turned to as something to learn about the history of the Holocaust and other genocides as well.”
Rein grew up in Brooklyn, N.Y. one of four siblings, including her identical twin, Stephanie. Although her family was not Orthodox, the Reins attended the Orthodox synagogue and its Hebrew school down the street from their home.
“Our parents were very dedicated parents; very devoted to our Jewish upbringing, very dedicated to education. The question I always get is how did I get a name like Mary Jane in such a dedicated Jewish family?” she laughs.
Her Americanized name came from her mother’s grandmother, to whom she was very close.
“She came from Lithuania and my mother really grew up listening to her grandmother’s stories about growing up in Lithuania and coming to this country,” Rein explained. “Mara Zlata was her Jewish name and when she came to this country she became Mary. My mother’s mother died when she was a teenager so her grandmother was a very important influence to her. She passed when my mother was pregnant with me and my twin sister. My mother said, of course the next baby born will be named for my grandmother.
“People hear it and think well that’s not a very Jewish name. The funny thing is my name, which reads to people as so un-Jewish, for my mother is the most Jewish thing there could be because her grandmother had such a Jewish neshama.”
Rein went on to attend Bryn Mawr College in Philadelphia, a school that many respected female archeologists attended as either undergrads or PhD students.
“I always had a fascination with Greek mythology and Greek history and I maybe imagined this idea of being an archeologist when I grew up but I didn’t go to Bryn Mawr for that reason. It just so happened that when I got there it was such an important institute for that field of study that it was natural to me that I would start studying archeology and taking Greek.”
Her undergraduate degree is in Art and Archeology. She spent one summer on a dig in Athens and another in Israel on an excavation at Tel Dan in the summer of 1984.
“It was staffed by Israelis but the workers were all Americans – a lot of American students, a mix of Jewish and non-Jewish — even some older Americans who were interested in having that kind of experience.”
After graduating from Bryn Mawr, she decided to continue her studies at Harvard.
During her second summer of graduate school, she worked on an excavation in Sardes, Turkey.
Her group excavated Roman ruins from around the tine of the Lydian empire. She was a trench supervisor, whose job it was to take notes, draw diagrams and deal with any finds. She also helped to identify coins found for dating purposes by searching through coin manuals.
“I loved being in Turkey. I studied Turkish. I loved the history. I just loved the whole experience,” she said.
She travelled around Turkey for a while, then moved back to Philadelphia, got married and wrote her dissertation.
Her husband, Dr. Seth Kates, was finishing his residency at the University of Pennsylvania. When he finished, they moved back to New England.
While writing her dissertation, Rein worked for organization called the American Research Institute, part of the Centers for American Overseas Research. (CAOR).
This organization supports overseas research.
“Archeologists or historians interested in the history of Turkey go to that organization to help organize their research overseas. Anyone who wanted to do field work would coordinate with CAOR,” she says. “I was involved in writing grants, working with institutional donors and also friends of the organization. Writing fund raising letters and newsletters. And that’s really what introduced me to academic fundraising.”
After beginning a family – their first son was born in 1994 – she taught for a semester at Clark, then began trying to “figure out could I continue in some capacity to have a family and stay in the academic world.” But deciding she couldn’t do both, she began to think of looking into other opportunities.
At the same time she was getting involved in the Worcester Jewish community.
“I had been doing some fundraising in the Jewish community as a volunteer including the Women’s campaign for the Jewish Federation. I was on the board of the Solomon Schechter Day School. I was president of the Solomon Schechter Day School. I was briefly on the board of the Federation, my synagogue (Beth Israel).”
She was interested in working at Clark and “lo and behold, looking at their website I see an opportunity to work as a half-time fundraiser at the Strassler Center. My grandfather and grandmother were both born in Europe. I had come to be more aware of the fates of their family members who did not come to the United States,” many of whom died during the Holocaust, she says.
She began the position at the Strassler Center reporting to founding director Deborah Dwork.
When Dwork decided to step away in 2006, a new leadership structure was formed where she and Thomas Kuhne are co-executive directors.
“It’s kind of like a job share where he has the academic side and I oversee the financial administrative side,” she says. “People say to me all the time…I could never imagine that this could work. But it does. In that sense I have been extremely fortunate in my having worked in the center professionally with Deborah as my mentor and now in this new capacity working closely with Thomas as a co-director. I have been incredibly fortunate to have these two outstanding scholars as my colleagues.”
She says she thinks her academic background may set her apart from other fundraisers.
“I never felt that I could do an effective job as a fundraiser unless I understood what was happening on a scholarly level. I attend every lecture. I attend all of our conferences. I write about them for our year-end report. I think I can do the most effective job when I sit down with a donor and I say, this is the work that our students are doing. This is the work that our faculty here is doing.”
She emphasizes that while Clark offers the first PhD program in the History of the Holocaust, the Center does not just focus on the Holocaust.
“In addition to having two faculty members who focus on the Holocaust we have a track that is dedicated to the history of the Armenian genocide,” she says. “For me as someone who spent a lot of time in Turkey, studied Turkish and was very interested in Turkish history, I knew very little about that part of Turkish history. I really value the work that Taner Akçam has done as the professor of Armenian genocide studies. He is a Turk who is a leading scholar of the Armenian genocide.”
Rein and her husband, a dermatologist with practices in Worcester and Chelmsford are the parents of three children.
Recently Rein was elected president of the Worcester JCC. Her family has belonged to the JCC since arriving in Worcester; her children when to JCC preschool and the JCC’s summer camp.
She served on the JCC board for a while, but when treasurer Dan Shertzer called and asked her if she was interested in serving as president, she says she wasn’t sure if she could take on more responsibility. But she said yes.
“The JCC is just one more important institution within the Worcester Jewish community,” she says. “We are a small community but we have a lot of institutions. But some of those institutions have been declining. There has been retrenchment. The synagogues have combined. We lost the day school. I’ve always felt like if you want there to be institutions, you can’t look the other way. You can’t leave it to others and expect that the institutions are going to continue. And I think that Worcester has this very rich Jewish presence and if we want it to continue we have to say yes to it. And I said, ‘Yes.’”
“Mary Jane is an incredible, dynamic leader who over the years has built a strong reputation for using her strategic vision and outstanding leadership and analytical skills to further the goals, mission and vision of many key institutions, including the Worcester JCC,” said JCC Executive Director Emily Rosenbaum. “The JCC is very diverse in its programming, membership and leadership. As someone whose children attended preschool and essentially ‘grew up at the JCC,’ and as an educator and Jewish community leader, Mary Jane understands the critical role that the JCC plays as a hub for early childhood education, summer camp, afterschool, sports, health and wellness, seniors, the arts, Jewish communal engagement and more. As such, the entire Board and staff are so grateful to have Mary Jane step into this key role.”