Published: Nov. 6, 2020

Students this week shared their stories about ‘how, again and again, he had shaped their lives at Boulder and beyond’

Professor David Shneer, the Louis P. Singer Endowed Chair in Jewish History at the University of Colorado Boulder, passed away this week. He was 48.

Called a “pathbreaking” scholar by the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Shneer's research focused on 20th century European, Russian and Jewish history and culture.

David Schneer

David Shneer

Elias Sacks, director of the Program in Jewish Studies and associate professor of religious studies, said that Shneer succumbed after a long battle with cancer. He described Shneer as a brilliant scholar whose work received nearly every prestigious award in the field of Jewish Studies. 

“More than that, though, he was someone who cared deeply about building community,” Sacks said, adding that he spent time this week on Zoom with many of Shneer’s former and current students, including a current undergraduate who had never taken a class with him, but who had heard about how dedicated a teacher he was.

“They shared stories about how, again and again, he had shaped their lives at Boulder and beyond. He was someone who was profoundly committed to those around him, and who was loved in return,” Sacks said.

Noting that the Mishnah, an ancient Jewish text, teaches that each person should make for themselves a friend, acquire for themselves a teacher and judge everyone favorably, Sacks added: “David exemplified what friendship, learning and embracing—and changing—the world truly mean. We are grateful for the time that we had with him, and heartbroken by his loss.”

Paul Sutter, professor and chair of history, noted that Shneer was an extraordinary and award-winning scholar, “but the things I will always remember about him are less easily gleaned from an academic CV.” 

Shneer was “the consummate artist-humanist,” a singer and an actor/performer, an archival researcher and historical writer, a scholarly collaborator and community builder, an engaged scholar-activist and an “extraordinary teacher and mentor to students and professional colleagues” alike, Sutter said, adding: 

“I rarely saw him around Hellems Hall when he was not surrounded by students, often engaged in hallway conversations that extended well beyond class, and when I stopped by his office, there always seemed to be student there as well, drinking tea with him. He was a wonderful colleague.”

Rabbi Marc Soloway of Congregation Bonai Shalom issued a statement expressing “deep grief at the devastating loss of Professor David Shneer, who was so loved and respected and taught several times in our community.”

David exemplified what friendship, learning and embracing—and changing—the world truly mean. We are grateful for the time that we had with him, and heartbroken by his loss.​"

Soloway said Shneer was truly inspirational in his academic work. “May his memory endure as a great blessing and our prayers of comfort and strength to his husband, Gregg Drinkwater, all his family and friends who adored him.”

Shneer received his PhD in history from the University of California, Berkeley in 2001. He directed the Center for Judaic Studies at the University of Denver before joining the CU Boulder faculty in 2008.

While at CU Boulder, Shneer served as director of Jewish studies, professor of history, and chair of religious studies. He was a distinguished lecturer for the Association for Jewish Studies, faculty director for Yiddishkayt, co-editor in chief of East European Jewish Affairs, and was the inaugural faculty director of CU Boulder’s Post Holocaust American Judaism Archive.

His book Through Soviet Jewish Eyes: Photography, War, and the Holocaust—which won the 2013 Jordan Schnitzer Prize of the Association for Jewish Studies and was a finalist for the National Jewish Book Award—looks at the lives and works of two dozen Soviet Jewish World War II military photographers to examine what kinds of photographs they took when they encountered evidence of Nazi genocide on the Eastern Front. 

In fall 2011, the traveling museum exhibit “Through Soviet Jewish Eyes” debuted at the CU Art Museum in Boulder and then showed at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York City, the Holocaust Museum Houston, the University of Louisiana’s Museum of Art at the Illinois Holocaust Museum in Chicago.

David Schneer

David Shneer sitting during "Art is My Weapon: The Radical Musical Life of Lin Jaldati". Photo taken by David T. Coons.

His other books include Queer Jews, Yiddish and the Creation of Soviet Jewish Culture and New Jews: The End of the Jewish Diaspora which has sparked discussion in publications like the Economist and the Jerusalem Post. 

Shneer’s latest book, Grief: The Biography of a Holocaust Photograph explores the history of a single image from the moment the Soviet photographer encountered the first liberated Holocaust killing site in January 1942 in the southern Russian city of Kerch. 

Shneer lectured nationally and internationally and wrote for the Huffington Post, Rocky Mountain News, The Denver Post and publications dedicated to Jewish life and culture, including Forward, Pakntreger, Jewcy and Nextbook

Shneer co-founded Jewish Mosaic, the first national Jewish LGBT organization, which merged with Keshet in 2010, and was education director of Congregation Sha’ar Zahav, the LGBT outreach synagogue of the San Francisco Bay Area, from 1997 through 2001. 

His work with the Jewish nonprofit world included consulting with organizations around issues of integrating post-Soviet Jews into Jewish communal life, having served as co-chair of Limmud Colorado, a volunteer-based Jewish learning festival; vice-chair of Keshet, a regional nonprofit that works for full equality and inclusion of LGBTQ in Jewish life; and working with Facing History and Ourselves, a global nonprofit dedicated to fostering a democratic, human-rights oriented education in high schools.

Shneer’s family invites friends to donate to increase the endowment for the James and Diane Shneer Endowed Fellowship Fund to support research in the Post-Holocaust American Judaism Archive at CU Boulder.