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The average pedestrian standing at the corner of Madison Avenue and 69th Street in New York City may not appreciate the significance of the signpost designating the block “Janis R. Coulter Place.”
But 10 years ago on Nov. 20, Israeli diplomats, New York City officials, and the president of Hebrew University gathered at the site for a street-naming ceremony to ensure that Ms. Coulter, who was murdered in an Arab terrorist attack at the university, wouldn’t be forgotten.
Janis, a native of western Massachusetts, attended the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Although raised Episcopalian, Janis was long “intrigued” by Jewish history, her sister, Diane Coulter Albert, later recalled. So perhaps it was no surprise that in the fall 1989 semester at Amherst, she signed up for Professor David S. Wyman’s course on the Holocaust.
Janis probably did not realize how much she and Prof. Wyman had in common: he too was a Protestant—the grandson of ministers on both sides of his family—who was intrigued by the history of the Jewish people. Wyman has devoted his professional career to researching and writing two monumental works on America’s response to the Holocaust: Paper Walls (1968) and the best-selling The Abandonment of the Jews (1984).
Prof. Wyman spoke to JNS.org in his first-ever interview about Janis.
“She was an outstandingly good student, in a class that was not easy,” Prof. Wyman recalled. “Of the 42 students, she had the fifth-highest grade. She was one of only five students who received an ‘A’ that semester.”
It was an upper division class, covering the entire Holocaust period, including extensive treatment of America’s response to the Nazi genocide. There was a good deal of interest among non-Jewish students, Prof. Wyman recalls.
“Usually, about half of the students in my courses on the Holocaust were Jewish, and about half were not,” he notes. “Janis was an eager student, always engaged, asking questions, taking part in discussions, more so than most of the other students. You could tell there was something different about her, something special.”
After graduating from Amherst in 1991, Janis’s interest in Judaism deepened. She spent time in Israel, studying at Hebrew University. When she returned, she settled in the Boston area and joined Temple Hillel Bnai Torah, in suburban West Roxbury. In 1996, she converted to Judaism.
Subsequently Janis began studying for a doctorate in Judaic studies at Temple University, in Philadelphia, but then relocated to Brooklyn in 1999 when she was hired as assistant director of the New York office of Hebrew University’s Rothberg School for Overseas Students.
As part of her new duties, Janis accompanied 19 American students who traveled to Israel in the summer of 2000 to begin a one-year study program. She was eating lunch with the students in the cafeteria on Hebrew University’s Mount Scopus campus on July 31, 2002, when the Palestinian bomber struck. Nine people, including Janis, were killed in the blast. More than 80 others were wounded.
“It was shocking, heartbreaking to hear the news that she was one of those who was killed in that attack,” Prof. Wyman recalls. “When you actually know someone personally who is one of the victims of something like that—well, it’s just not the same as reading the statistics in the news or watching a 30-second story on the evening news.”
Janis was one of more than 100 American citizens—immigrants, students, and tourists—who have been murdered in Palestinian terrorist attacks since the 1970s. Few of the victims are remembered today. Her friends and family have tried to keep Janis’s memory alive, first by establishing a Janis Coulter Memorial Scholarship fund at Hebrew University.
The idea to name a street in Janis’s memory came from then-New York City Council Speaker Gifford Miller, who heard about Janis during a visit to Israel in 2002.
Councilman Miller, together with Hebrew University president Menahem Magidor and Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations, Yehuda Lancry, spoke at the Nov. 20 ceremony 10 years ago, at which the block on 69th street where the offices of the American Friends of Hebrew University are located, was renamed Janis R. Coulter Place.
When Ambassador Lancry said in his remarks that terrorism “can occur against those close to us,” the reference was all too real: his own niece had been killed in a Palestinian suicide attack on an Israeli bus just six months before the Coulter naming ceremony.
Janis’s sister, Dianne Albert, told reporters, “Our family will always treasure this little street in Manhattan.”
Dr. Rafael Medoff’s latest book, coauthored with Prof. Sonja Schoepf Wentling, is “Herbert Hoover and the Jews: The Origins of the ‘Jewish Vote’ and Bipartisan Support for Israel.”