BY BRIAN EDSALL
On July 14, Monsey native J.R. Rothstein received a Fulbright award from the U.S. Department of State and the J. William Fulbright Foreign Scholarship Board.
The Fulbright Program was established in 1946 introduced by then-Senator J. William Fulbright of Arkansas. His program drew strength from the U.S.’s national commitment to develop post-war leadership and mutual understanding between nations, ultimately leaving an extraordinary impact around the world.
Recipients of Fulbright awards are selected by a U.S. Presidential committee on the basis of academic and professional achievement as well as record of service and leadership potential in their respective fields.
Rothstein first began studying Jewish law as a student at Yeshiva of Spring Valley. It is here that he credits two of his teachers – Rabbi Hershel Mashinsky and Rabbi Yaakov Horowitz – for shaping his approach to Talmud and Mishnah.
Rothstein’s exposure to Talmudical hermeneutics further developed while he was a student at Yeshiva University High School in Manhattan. Here, Rothstein was heavily influenced by another Rabbi, Dr. Sid Schimmel (1943 – 2016) who taught him in Jewish History. “Rabbi Schimmel was an intellectual giant who loved ideas and his students,” said Rothstein. “Seeing my thirst for knowledge, he would lend me books and when I was done with those he would ask Mr. Wexler the librarian to get me more. He embodied the values of MTA and Torah u’maddah, which means being a Torah Jew and still being part of society.”
After studying at a Yeshiva in Isreal for a year, Rothstein decided to attend the University of Michigan. As a member of the Middle-Eastern and North African department, Rothstein immersed himself in the study of Islamic law and Middle-Eastern culture. He would study with Juan Cole and Sherman Jackson – renowned Islamic scholars – who would train him in Islamic law, theology and history.
During his time at the University of Michigan, Rothstein would become a pioneer of Jewish-Muslim relations, developing a warm relationship with many members of the campus’ Muslim community. Within this community was Mohammad Tayssir Safi, who at the time encouraged Rothstein to further pursue his study of Islamic law in Egypt. Rothstein agreed and would later decide to attend the American University of Cairo.
Simultaneously, Rothstein was a member of the Ann Arbor Orthodox Minyan at the University of Michigan. Through the Orthodox Minyan and the Judaic Studies department, Rothstein would become a protégé of Rod Glogower, Rabbi of the Ann Arbor Orthodox Minyan, Zvi Gitelman, the Preston R. Tisch Professor of Judaic Studies, and Todd Endleman, the William Haber Professor of Modern Jewish History. All of these men shaped Rothstein’s views regarding the evolution of Halacha (Jewish law) in the modern world and throughout history.
After working at the United Nations as a Legacy Heritage Fellow, Rothstein attended Cornell Law School. At Cornell, Rothstein worked under the tutelage of Professor Chantal Thomas. With Thomas, Rothstein began engaging in the systematic comparison of civil and common law with Islamic law and gained a framework of how to examine the legal codes of states in the contemporary Middle-East through the lens of both Islamic and Western secular sources. Both Rothstein and Thomas studied Islamic law and Arabic at the American University of Cairo with Professor Bernard Freamon, in Islamic jurist, and cite him as an influence in the way they approach the subject.
Rothstein selected the city of Toronto, with the University of Toronto at its center, as the place to be a Fulbright Fellow. Rothstein described Toronto as the perfect location ground to explore the convergence and divergence between the Jewish and Muslim faiths.
“Toronto, with University of Toronto at its center, is a crucible of different communities, cultures, and ideas all coming together,” said Rothstein. “It is the perfect place for intellectual endeavors and to explore the potential of Jewish-Muslim relations…it has first rate international scholars in Jewish and Islamic legal studies, theory and theology.”
Rothstein, who studied real estate development at New York University, and middle-eastern studies at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, brings practical experience to the subject of his Fulbright. He was previously a real estate and employment attorney at a Manhattan firm and received both his Juris Doctor, and Master of Laws in International and Comparative Law from Cornell Law School where he was Editor of the Journal of Law and Public Policy and an Albert Heit Scholarship recipient. He later served as a federal law clerk in the Eastern District of New York for the Honorable I. Leo Glasser where he employed many of the principles his teachers taught him.
Fulbright alumni have achieved distinction in many fields, including 57 who have been awarded the Nobel Prize, 82 who have received Pulitzer Prizes, and 37 who have served as a head of state or government. Despite these achievements, the program’s funding is facing a 47 percent cut proposed by the Trump administration along with many other sharp reductions in the State Department Budget, according to The Washington Post.
During the current budget year, the U.S. government has provided a little more than $235 million to finance study abroad for about 8,000 Fulbright scholars. The Trump administration wants to cut that to $125 million — less money than other governments, universities and businesses contribute separately. The Fulbright Association wants it increased to $240 million.
“We’re dismayed,” said John Bader, executive director of the Fulbright Association, to The Washington Post. “People will lose jobs, people will be hurt, and American universities will suffer. Because suddenly the scholars they were expecting to come to town won’t.”
There have been more than 360,000 Fulbrighters from the U.S. and other countries since the scholarship’s inception in 1946. Rothstein hopes to join the many award winners who have made a profound impact domestically and abroad, despite these proposed budget cuts. Rothstein’s personal website can be accessed at http://www.jrrothstein.com/