Jewish Studies Robust on U.S. College Campuses Amid Challenges

Dina Kraft
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Dina Kraft

BOSTON – A stapled list of “Rare and Special Judaica” titles from a New York bookstore which includes a 1914 musical arrangement for “A Mame iz der Bester Fraynd” , Yiddish for “Your Mother is Your Best Friend” lies amid scattered papers that include a postcard advertising lectures on the Third Post Holocaust Generation of Jews in Poland at the main annual gathering of Jewish Studies scholars.

Over 1,200 professors and assorted scholars, teachers and other professionals converged on a Boston hotel conference center earlier this week to attend the 45th Annual Conference of the Association for Jewish Studies, the largest gathering in the organization’s history. Presentations on Jewish Identity and International Pop Music, a panel on using social media as a tool for Jewish history research and talks on Medieval Jewish Marriage and Kabbalah as Literature were among its 190 sessions.

Organizers said the conference’s size and breadth reflected a field that has been growing in recent decades and even thriving although its scholars and students also face the same challenges faced by the humanities in general in an era of budget cutbacks and increasingly scarce tenure track jobs.

“People worry that the wolves are at the door, but Jewish Studies seems to be robust and opportunities do exist that did not 15 to 20 years ago,” said Hartley Lachter who teaches Muhlenberg College, a small liberal arts school in Pennsylvania, describing how interdisciplinary the field has become.
It has expanded far beyond the world of Jewish texts, literature and history with a growing focus on areas including gender and sexuality, cultural studies, food studies, Diaspora studies, economic history, and the study of Israel and the Arab-Israeli conflict.

“There are an extraordinary number of opportunities to explore the field,” said Rona Sheramy, executive director of the Association for Jewish Studies, noting more than 170 colleges and universities in North America offering undergraduate and graduate degree programs in Jewish Studies.

But as undergraduate students, increasingly fearful of their job prospects in a tough economy often seek out courses that they think will help them later professionally, professors and lecturers offering Jewish studies courses have had to reach out and argue what they teach is relevant once they leave campus as well.

“The climate around the humanities has changed and professors are being asked to quantify the value of their fields and courses on a very practical level for undergraduate students. How will this program give students the skills they need for a global economy? How will these courses give them a leg up in finding a job after graduation? There is relevance to these questions, but it is very problematic to judge the value of the humanities -- and Jewish Studies -- solely along these lines,” said Sheramy.

“What about the necessity of critical thinking, reading, and writing skills to prepare citizens of a democracy? To participate intelligently and thoughtfully in the wider culture? These things are hard to quantify but essential for society,” she added.

And Jewish studies courses have flourished recently on some unlikely campuses, including the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh where many students had little or no interaction with Jews or Jewish topics before coming to college. But courses like a survey course on the Hebrew Bible and Judaism and less traditional ones with intriguing names like “Judaism and Comic Books” and “Judaism, Gender and Environment” are popular.

They are taught by Jodi Eichler-Levine, an assistant professor of Religious Studies, the first to teach Jewish Studies on the campus. She spoke on a panel about attracting students to the Jewish Studies classroom.
Also on the panel was Elias Sacks, also an assistant professor of Religious Studies who teaches University of Colorado, Boulder, where most students in Jewish Studies classes are also not Jewish.

“Part of why I think courses are successful is that they are about issues interesting to students regardless of the Jewish tradition,” Sacks said. “They want to get to debate religion and politics and part of why these courses sell is because they address broader issues.”

Marketing courses by giving them a good name does not hurt either. He’s taught popular classes including “Topics in Judaism: Love and Desire” and “Topics in Judaism: God and Politics in Jewish and Christian Thought.”

In recent years, especially as faculty positions have become more elusive, the stigma has begun to lessen within the field for those graduates of Phd programs who opt out of academia.

A panel at the conference offered advice and guidance from Jewish studies scholars who found other career options; ones they said suited them better than life in academia.

Annie Polland who wrote her dissertation at Columbia University about immigrant Jews on New York City’s Lower East Side, described her path to becoming the Vice President of Programs and Education at the Tenement Museum which tells the story of immigrant families from various periods.
She told the audience she was uncomfortable with the distinctions made between public history and scholarly history.

“It’s more productive to look at what two labels share. If we are all about sharing history you share it with people because of some higher good that comes from that sharing,” said Polland.

Another panelist spoke of the satisfaction he has found working for the USC Shoah Foundation. And another Jewish Studies Phd, Joshua Levisohn, spoke of his transition to teaching at a Jewish Day School.

“It is certainly not something I felt like was a step down. It’s really about teaching, about wanting to have a relationship with younger people and wanting to watch them grow.”

AJS Jordan Schnitzer Book Award winners: Dr. Ephraim Kanarfogel, Dr. Erica T. Lehrer, Dr. Nathaniel Deutsch, Dr. Zvi Gitelman, Dr. David ShneerCredit: Courtsey: Association of Jewish Studise

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