By: Nick Santangelo

Professor Leonard Swidler is something of an institution here in the College of Liberal Arts’ Religion Department and is well-known abroad for furthering interfaith dialogue. And now, Dr. Swidler has made a decision that will ensure the professor, who’s been with Temple University since 1966, will remain an institution here long after his teaching tenure is complete.

In June, he made a generous commitment to the college in his will, allowing for the creation of the Arlene and Leonard Swidler Chair for Interreligious Dialogue and Modern Catholic Thought in the Religion Department. This will ensure Dr. Swidler’s lifelong dedication to Temple and the College of Liberal Arts will extend into a lasting legacy.

Dr. Swidler says that Temple has had a broad, inter-religious history since it became a state-related university in 1966. It’s no coincidence that the university became such right at the same time Dr. Swidler joined the faculty—its becoming a public university was the main reason he came! Once he joined the faculty here, the college began teaching religion “from the inside as well as from the outside,” according to Dr. Swidler. The professor says it was an approach no other university in the world attempted before Temple.

“In fact, Dr. Swidler has just published, with help of still-living early professors and doctoral students of the 1960/70s, a history of the founding and early years of the Religion Department titled “Breakthrough to Dialogue: The Story of and Reflections on Temple University’s Department of Religion.”

“The Dialogue was at the very center of what we were all about,” says Dr. Swidler. “The Religion Department had Jews, Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Atheists…all together. Everybody who was in our department was a recognized expert in his or her area. Wherever one came from—China, India, Africa, you name it—she/he was an expert.

“Of course, imitation is the highest praise. Now, everybody, even small colleges with only three professors, has a religiously mixed faculty. It's just standard fare. In those days, it wasn't. It was brand new—like a starburst.”

This history of cross-faith and international collaboration, says the long-tenured professor, is a large part of why he decided to fund a named chair. With the terms of the Swidler Chair established, early conversations have taken place as to who might be the first to fill such a prestigious position once the funds are realized. Religion Professor Terry Rey, seems a logical choice for all to carry on Dr. Swidler’s work. 

“We are very good friends on a personal level,” says Dr. Swidler of his relationship with Dr. Rey. “I was also his doctoral director (Doktor-vater in German) when he focused his dissertation on the role of Blessed Virgin Mary in Haiti and in its culture.

“He and I have many things that we share. I'm pleased and excited about the prospect of his being the first Arlene and Leonard Swidler Chair—while I am still teaching. Not only that, but for a year and a half now, he has been my successor as the founding editor of the “Journal of Ecumenical Studies” —started by my wife, Arlene Anderson Swidler, and I in 1964—and its practice-oriented offspring, the “Dialogue Institute: Interreligious, Intercultural, International,” also located at Temple. This is another bond between us. In a way, he is a Leonard Swidler redivivus.”

Similarly to how Dr. Rey left an impression on Dr. Swidler from the moment he met him, Dr. Swidler has left quite the impression on many people here at Temple University, including President Richard Englert.

“I cannot adequately express the thanks of the entire university and me personally for Dr. Swidler’s generosity both in this wonderful endowment but also for a long, illustrious history of giving of himself to others,” remarks President Englert. “In these tumultuous times, we need anchors of calm, caring commitment to fundamental values including the dignity of every human being regardless of circumstance.

“In the past nearly 45 years that I’ve been at Temple University and known him, Dr. Swidler has bravely stood out as a champion for the most vulnerable and for bringing people together across religious, racial, gender and other lines that divide too many around the world. No matter how challenging the situation, his strength, dedication and focus on the important things of life continue to motivate the rest of us to follow suit. It is an honor to count him as a colleague and a friend.”

College of Liberal Arts Dean Richard Deeg has been equally impressed with the impact Dr. Swidler has made during his impressive tenure here.

“Len Swidler has been a vital member of the College of Liberal Arts’ faculty for over five decades. I’m delighted that he’ll be making such a generous gift to the college, allowing his name and legacy to live on here to the benefit of future students and faculty members. Creating an endowed professorship will strengthen the Religion department for the long haul.”

Originally from Green Bay, Wisconsin (and, as he points out, therefore a proud Packers fan), Dr. Swidler began his fulltime teaching career at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh and has spent years abroad teaching in Germany, Romania, Japan, China, Malaysia, Azerbaijan, the Congo… but he’ll always have a home at Temple University’s College of Liberal Arts. (Consequently, he invites all who are interested in “Dialogue” to write him at dialogue@temple.edu.) And thanks to his gift, he’ll always be an institution here.

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