The Foundation for Jewish Culture, in partnership with the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, recently announced the launch of the Jewish Studies Expansion Project, a pioneering program aimed at improving and diversifying Jewish studies course offerings at colleges and universities across the nation.
The Schusterman Family Foundation has earmarked $1 million for a pilot phase of the program, which will offer two-year postdoctoral fellowships to new doctoral students with a primary interest in, and dissertations covering, some aspect of Jewish civilization. Participating institutions this year include American University, Northeastern University, Ohio University, Towson University, Tulane University and the University of Delaware.
The main goal of the project is to give undergraduate students more opportunities to learn about Jewish religion, history and culture. While all the participating schools have well-funded, successful Hillels, the JSEP will use the academic community as an avenue for Jewish and non-Jewish students alike to participate in new courses, scholarly events organized by their peers and the larger Jewish community.
More than 40 schools were initially chosen by an advisory committee by comparing the size of the Jewish population on campus with the number of Jewish studies courses being offered. At American University, for example, where the Jewish student population is near 1,100, one Jewish studies course was being offered per semester. In addition, site visits were made, and professionals and students alike were consulted throughout the selection process.
At Northeastern University in Boston, student enrollment in Jewish studies had doubled and tripled in many courses over the past 10 years. Due to the interdisciplinary nature of Jewish studies, however, the subject had no full-time teaching faculty. Instead, professors in various departments would teach Jewish-related courses sporadically. But next year, this will change.
Across the country, doctorates related to Jewish culture are being earned in comparative literature, history, anthropology, linguistics and religion. Consequently, Jewish studies is growing as a prime vantage point into broader fields, and broader fields are becoming a major vantage point from which to approach Jewish history and culture. “Some of the non-Jewish students are drawn by an interest in a related subject (the Holocaust, the Arab-Israeli conflict, etc.), and some are interested in issues of multiculturalism and wish to learn about a culture unfamiliar to them,” remarked Jenny Sartori, associate director of Jewish studies at Northeastern.
The JSEP will also provide a studious way for Jewish students to become engaged with their heritage. “The program is intended to reach and educate a broad swath of Jewish students who may not connect to other sorts of Jewish opportunities on campus, as well as to provide enhanced opportunities for the entire student body to learn about Judaism and Jewish life in a rich, multidisciplinary fashion.” said Lisa Eisen, national program director of the Schusterman Foundation.
Of course, students won’t be the only part of the academic community to benefit. “It’s the first time the foundation is helping this specific demographic — new Ph.D.s,” said Elise Bernhardt, president and CEO of the Foundation for Jewish Culture. “With JSEP, we are helping scholars at a different but critical transition stage — giving them teaching experience before they find a long-term position at an academic institution.”
Each university receiving a grant is responsible for hiring its new postdoctoral fellow. While the Foundation for Jewish Culture will assist administratively and the Schusterman Family Foundation will work to identify long-term donors, the hiring is an autonomous affair tailored to the unique needs of each institution. David Horowitz, a professor at Tulane University in New Orleans, wrote in an e-mail: “We are looking for a historian with expertise in American Jewish history…. Furthermore, we want someone who cares about rebuilding New Orleans and public service, which has been integrated into the Tulane curriculum. It is possible that the individual we choose could inspire students to care not only about the past but also about the present.”