Roberta Sabbath loves projects. In fact, she thrives on them. From capturing oral histories of veterans and Holocaust survivors to coordinating campus anti-hate programs to spark courageous conversations, Sabbath is never idle or wanting for a transformative idea.
As visiting assistant professor of English and religious studies coordinator for campus and community partnerships in the College of Liberal Arts, she keeps her hands full with initiatives that appeal to our humanity and celebrate our diversity. Here she discusses how UNLV energizes her and why she’s committed to spreading the word that we’re more alike than different.
Tell us about your expertise before coming to UNLV and how you landed here.
I’ve had many chapters in my life. I started off as a junior high school French teacher. I joined VISTA [a program to place teachers in low-income schools] with my husband. We were in Alaska for a year, and I worked with the Kodiak School District as the first teacher for the GED program and developed after-school programming for native children. We came to Las Vegas in 1969. I worked at the Clark County Juvenile Court Services as a protective services officer for six years. I did volunteer work for the Jewish Federation of Nevada, and I was part of the first group of people to talk about being Holocaust survivors in the 1980s.
I got a master’s in counseling from UNLV in 1976. (Then-theatre chair) Beverly Byers-Pevitz introduced me to feminist theory and criticism. She mentored me, and I discovered that as a woman, I could have a voice; I did have agency. I could define who I am. That changed my life. I decided I needed a Ph.D.
This was the most impractical thing. My (three) kids were teens. My husband was still practicing law. I applied to the comparative literature department at the University of California-Riverside and graduated in 1994.
I came to UNLV in 1999 and had the wonderful opportunity to teach World Literature and Composition. I teach Hebrew Bible, Gender, and Sexuality in the spring and Jews, Judaism and Jewish Identity for Religious Studies in the fall. I was a faculty in residence for 3.5 years until 2008, and I’ve been in my current position for three years.
Is this what you thought you’d do when you grew up?
I grew up in Silver Spring, Maryland. As a young woman, I was told you need to be a teacher to get into the University of Maryland tuition free. My dad was a government patent attorney, and we didn’t have much money. Ironically, I ended up loving teaching but at a whole different level. I didn’t have any idea; I never thought this would’ve been possible.
What’s the last big project you completed and how did you celebrate or decompress afterward?
I edited the book Troubling Topics, Sacred Texts: Readings in Hebrew Bible, New Testament, and Qur’an. People from all over the world contributed. This one took about six years and came out Oct. 4, 2021.
I decompressed by starting another project. I can’t be without projects. I’m writing my first monograph. I’m also working on VegasStrong Five Years Later: Bearing Witness 1 October 2017. I decided there needed to be a historical artifact on the 5th anniversary of the 1 October tragedy. I’ve gathered almost 20 people to provide witness accounts. We have survivors, family members of survivors, local and national elected officials, chair of the 1 October Memorial Committee, therapists, poets, representatives of the Las Vegas Community Healing Garden, the Vegas Golden Knights, and others. It’s the personal and the public, how we survived, and how we’re VegasStrong.
Name a person or group of people on campus you’d like to thank.
My students continue to inspire me for their intelligence, quick wit, passion for learning, and diversity. Teaching at UNLV is an honor. My colleagues in the English department and College of Liberal Arts as well as the office of online education make teaching a joy. If I have a reasonable request, they will say yes. I’m not used to that. That’s why I’m cherishing it so much. We are climbing collaboratively. We still have many mountains to climb.
The place on campus I feel the most ____ is ______.
Gratified is the Xeriscape Garden; inspired is the Lied Library; and enriched is the Marjorie Barrick Museum of Art.
Outside of your research, what are you passionate about?
Diverse communities are fragile, and our campus is like a petri dish for hope. Talking and listening to each other matters. Through our advisors of faith-based and spirituality RSOs (there are now about 20 on campus), we have an opportunity for cultural competency. We have different rituals, communal practices, iterations of faith, but we’re all fundraising for the underprivileged, the homeless, food insecurity, fighting drug overdoses, suicide.
These things bring us together and help us heal. Conversations about difference matter. We hosted the Hate Uncycled series to bring together faculty and activists from our community to show how UNLV has dispersed its message of service, diversity, and inclusivity, and provided remarkable opportunities for our students to grow. Remarkable work is being done for the local community and the national picture. We had over 1,000 hits to those four (virtual) sessions.
What is something people would be surprised to learn about you?
My husband and I caught a 54-pound halibut off the coast of Kodiak, Alaska, and enjoyed every meal. It was fabulous. I love fishing.
What trait do you most like about yourself and what would you change?
I embrace change and look for opportunities to learn, grow, and interact with a diversity of people. I get bored easily.
What do you want people to know about religious studies?
The study of religion can open doors to the cultural richness and the unique place in history that our campus has. Many of our students are first generation and come from homes where the traditional practice of religion is central. Learning about the diversity of religions with a capital ‘R’ like Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, and Christianity is important.
But in today’s world, spirituality has become a very personal iteration of the small ‘r’ in terms of religious expression. One part of having a robust religious studies program is understanding the complexity of religious expression.
Honoring religion is not a firewall against hate; often hate is couched in religious terms. I’ve heard people say the United States would be better if it were all one religion. What kind of country would that be? Would we want to live in that country? Acknowledging and expressing religious diversity can help mitigate the human tendency to feel more comfortable with people with whom we share more everyday similarities than differences.
You have many partnerships across campus. Tell us about your choreographic collaborations.
Dance is a beautiful trope to highlight. I love doing oral histories. It began as a project in World Literature where my students collaborated with the department of dance students in choreography classes and performed short dance pieces related to the mythologies I was teaching. That morphed into veterans and Holocaust survivors. We started about four years prior to COVID, and we’re still going.
The Western Jewish Studies Association was the first religious studies conference on campus (virtual in 2021). March 18-20, we’re having the virtual American Academy of Religion-Western Region conference. (The tentative plan is for it to come to UNLV in 2023.) This year’s theme is “Forgiveness” and the heart-wrenching questions surrounding it. We’ll be addressing slavery and the Holocaust. What greater events beg the question ‘how do we forgive’?