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Jonathan Hess, distinguished professor of Jewish history at UNC, dies

Jonathan Hess

Photo contributed by the Carolina Center for Jewish Studies.

Jonathan Hess, a distinguished professor of Jewish History and Culture, died suddenly Monday afternoon of an apparent aneurysm. 

Hess, 52, was the chair of the Department of Germanic and Slavic Language and Literatures and an adjunct professor of religious studies. Hess left behind a legacy that will influence his students and colleagues for years to come, and his loss is deeply felt by the departments he left, said Tin Wegel, German language program director and fellow professor.

“It was nothing we had expected,” Wegel said. “I know that we will go through a period of feeling incredibly lost and just basically putting Band-Aids on things.” 

Hess joined the UNC faculty in 1993 and received his education at Yale University, Johns Hopkins University and the University of Pennsylvania. Hess went on to lead the Carolina Center for Jewish Studies for its first 10 years. 

“He channeled his unwavering dedication and strong leadership into a powerful vision for what Jewish Studies at Carolina could, and should, become,” the Carolina Center for Jewish Studies said in a statement. 

Despite balancing being a department chair, husband to UNC School of Law professor Beth Posner and an involved father of three daughters, Hess was invested in his students. 

“He was incredibly dedicated to his students, always going above and beyond to help us,” said Claire Staresinic, a first-year student of Hess’. “He had such a gift with teaching, like he could make any topic interesting, and he knew how to engage his students in whatever we were discussing.” 

Wegel, who knew Hess since she started working at UNC in 2006, recalls his zest for life, sense of humor and great smile. Wegel also remembers his commitment to students. 

“They always felt like he was one of those people who makes you really feel like when you're talking to him, you were the most important thing in the world,” Wegel said. “I think that is something that is so very profound, like he really encouraged students to go for it.” 

Staresinic is one student who was encouraged by Hess to study what she loved, changing her major from biology to a double major in German literature and psychology. 

“Because of him and his influence, I never wanted to let it go,” Staresinic said. “I wanted to do German for the rest of my life, and he shows me not to be afraid of what I'm truly passionate about and to pursue that wholeheartedly.” 

As the department chair of Germanic and Slavic Language and Literature, Hess focused on reenergizing faculty and creating a more tight-knit environment, in addition to making updates in the Slavic curriculum. 

“I don't think his impact will vanish at all,” Wegel said. “You look at what he already did and you try to really move forward in that spirit and say, ‘Yes, these are the things he had in mind. This is how we will continue implementing his ideas.’” 

Hess wrote four books and numerous peer-reviewed articles on Jewish-German culture, politics and anti-Semitism, but he also enjoyed hiking, taking care of his two Basset hounds, traveling and the arts. 

“He was clearly a brilliant man,” Staresinic said. “He was so intelligent, but he was really warm and friendly at the same time, so approachable. It was an honor to have studied under him in two different classes, and I really think my trajectory in college has changed for the better because of him, and I know many others who would say the same.” 

In its statement, the Carolina Center for Jewish Studies said, “It is impossible for us, at this time, to imagine the Center’s future without Jonathan’s input, but we are committed to building on all that he achieved and to ensuring that this Center — that he cared about so deeply — continues to thrive and surpass all expectations.”

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