Education: Ph.D. History, Univeristy of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Elana Jakel is the Program Manager of the Initiative for the Study of Ukranian Jewry at the Jack, Joeseph and Morton Mandel Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
When did you first develop an interest in Slavic, East European and Eurasian studies?
I fell in love with Russian and Soviet history in college—almost by accident. As a lowly underclassman, most of the history courses that I wanted to take were closed by the time my registration date came around, but my assigned academic advisor gave me permission to enroll above the course cap in her two-semester survey of Russian history. By the time we hit the late imperial period, I was hooked. The following year, I started studying Russian.
Tell us about your career trajectory that led you to your current profession.
I pursued a doctorate in history at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and followed the traditional graduate career path: coursework, summer language schools, research, writing, teaching, Netflix binge-watching, etc. I combined my longstanding interest in Jewish history with my Soviet history specialization and developed a dissertation on the experiences of Ukrainian Jews immediately after the Holocaust. Although I chose to focus on Ukraine for demographic reasons, it proved to be an asset when I applied for my current position. In 2010 I spent six months at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Mandel Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies as a Charles H. Revson Foundation Fellow, a wonderfully productive experience that also gave me the opportunity to meet employees of the Mandel Center and learn about their future plans for dedicated programming on the Holocaust as it occurred in the former Soviet Union. I thought a career at USHMM might be a good alternative to academia for me, so I kept a close eye on the Museum’s job listings. Luckily, the announcement for my position came shortly after I defended my dissertation.
Tell us about the activities of your current career. How do you utilize your training in ASEEES?
In the Mandel Center, I’m one of a team of three working to promote the study of the Holocaust as it occurred in the former Soviet Union. We organize programs for students and scholars both here and in Europe, give outreach lectures at universities, and, increasingly, create instructional
resources. I feel very fortunate to be able to apply the skills I worked so hard developing for my doctorate directly
to my career. I have travelled to Ukraine several times for work, building partnerships, giving lectures, and attending conferences. With my colleagues, I have developed and led an introductory seminar on the Holocaust in the USSR for undergraduates, MA students, and early PhD students, as well as a Dissertation Development Workshop that allows an international group of doctoral students to workshop each other’s topic proposals and conduct preliminary research in USHMM’s library and archives. (Shameless plug: Please encourage your students to apply by September 15 for our upcoming “Research Introduction to Jewish Life and the Holocaust in the USSR”; details at www.ushmm.org/sovietunion-seminar.) Programs like these allow me to step into the ideal classroom where I get to discuss the subjects I love, on my own terms, with interested and motivated participants and no assignments to grade. The Mandel Center is starting to focus more on producing print and online resources for college professors and students. At the moment, a colleague and I are developing a proposal for a source book on the Holocaust in the Soviet Union. There are preliminary plans underway for resources focused on Jewish life and the Holocaust in Ukraine as well, so that will keep me busy for the next few years. I am also doing some research and writing on my own time.
What advice do you have for those interested in a similar career?
Given the current state of higher education and the academic job market, I think it’s very important that all graduate students—including those who can’t imagine life as anything other than a tenured professor—prepare themselves for alternative career paths. Take advantage of your tuition waiver to pursue a minor field or graduate certificate outside of your department in fields like Public History, Museum Studies, an interdisciplinary specialty, or any other interest. Once you’ve put in your time as a teaching assistant, pursue other assistantships that will give you a different skill set. I spent a year working as a graduate assistant at UIUC’s Russian, East European and Eurasian Center, which was a bit unusual for a doctoral student, but that gave me the program planning and administrative experience that set me apart from other applicants and helped me secure my position at the Museum. Finally, don’t just settle for reading proficiency in your foreign languages. Foreign languages are an asset outside of academia, but only if you’re able to converse on subjects beyond your narrow research interests and the corresponding vocabulary