Minors in Jewish Studies Make Major Gains

Published January 20, 2006, issue of January 20, 2006.
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That explains how minor programs became possible, but there’s still the question of motivation: Why would a Catholic school set up a Jewish studies program?

“It is part of the aspiration of Catholic colleges to be great colleges,” Fisher told the Forward. “Excellent colleges have Jewish studies; you can’t teach Western civilization without it.”

The character of Jewish studies programs at Catholic universities depends on resources, the extent of the Jewish presence on campus and the administration’s commitment to the program. At Scranton — a school with slightly more than 4,000 undergrads, but with almost no Jewish students and comparatively few Jewish scholars — the minor program that is currently under development is primarily the work of one man: associate professor Marc Shapiro, who holds an endowed chair in Judaic studies. “I’m in the theology department, so religion is more central,” Shapiro said, explaining why Scranton’s program will emphasize Jewish religion. While plans are not finalized, Shapiro expects the minor to debut this fall. Why now? Because there’s a critical mass of courses, Shapiro said, and because he is now firmly established at the university, having taught at the northern Pennsylvania school for nearly a decade.

Boston College, in contrast, has more Jewish professors and significantly more secular Jewish studies offerings — and both are reflected in its minor curriculum. Shrayer and Dwayne Carpenter, the other founder and co-director of Boston College’s program, pitched it to the powers-that-be as a curriculum analogous to existing minors in Latin American, African American and women’s studies. “This new minor developed from the enthusiasm of the faculty who proposed it — nearly 20 so far in eight of our departments,” wrote Joseph Quinn, dean of the college of arts and sciences, in an e-mail. “The program focuses on Jewish civilization, history and religion, across time and space.”

Only 1% of Boston College’s undergraduates are Jewish — just several dozen out of a student body of 8,900, of whom 70% are Catholic. So Shrayer assumes that his students have little or no fundamental knowledge of things Jewish.

Chris Agliano, a senior majoring in theology, signed up for the minor in Jewish studies. Agliano has attended Catholic schools since kindergarten and never knew many Jews. “Judaism opened up a world to me that I had no idea about,” he said, adding that beyond the academic learning, his courses are helping him understand the personal experience of what it is like to be Jewish.

Without a distinct Jewish studies department, and with only one designated Jewish studies professor, Boston College’s minor is interdisciplinary. To craft the program, Shrayer and Carpenter consolidated existing courses from various departments and then added key offerings, including a fundamentals class. Now, courses “are not just there because someone was working on their own, but because there is dialogue and centralized planning,” Shrayer said.

Seven students have enrolled in the minor since its inception in September 2005, roughly evenly split between Jews and non-Jews. “If we hit 12 to 15 minors, I’d be absolutely delighted,” Carpenter said. “That would be a serious academic program.”

Shrayer and Carpenter, who teaches Hispanic studies, run the program out of their offices in their respective departments. Without a departmental anchor, any new hires will have to come through an existing department; if the history department wants to hire a historian, for example, Carpenter and Shrayer might lobby for a specialist in Jewish history. Other than a $1,000 budget, the minor has cost the college next to nothing so far. “We’ve received no outside donations,” Carpenter said, countering a rumor that the program was jump-started by a wealthy Jewish donor.

While Boston College’s program was driven by its faculty and required little financial investment, Georgetown’s administration actively participated in creating and funding its Program for Jewish Civilization, a research and teaching center housed in the School of Foreign Service. Created in 2004, the program is already on track to surpass in ambition and scope the Jewish studies programs of many other universities, Catholic or not.

A majority of Georgetown’s 6,700 undergraduates report being Catholic, but there are notable non-Catholic populations: 5.3% of the students are Jewish, and 2.1% Muslim. Georgetown started offering its SFS students — undergraduates focusing on international affairs — a certificate (the equivalent of a minor) in Jewish civilization two years ago, and last fall the university opened it up as a minor degree program to students in the traditional liberal arts program of Georgetown College. Cynthia Pekron, a junior in the SFS, is interested in refugee and asylum policy. She calls the number of Palestinian refugees “outrageous.” “To understand the Palestinian and Israeli conflict, you must know something about Judaism,” she said. And so, she’s minoring in Jewish civilization.

Georgetown’s minor consolidated existing courses into an interdisciplinary curriculum, but the minor is just one part of what Georgetown is trying to accomplish with the Program for Jewish Civilization. No one interviewed for this story would give specifics about the program’s budget, but the evidence suggests that Georgetown’s investment has been considerable. In addition to raising what appears to be substantial seed money, Georgetown is consciously planning for growth. Twenty-five prominent scholars, including linguist Deborah F. Tannen, historian Michael Kazin and foreign policy expert Robert J. Lieber, serve on the program’s academic executive committee. Professor of government Yossi Shain is the program’s director, and the university has brought in a co-director, visiting professor Jacques Berlinerblau, for a three-year appointment. His goal is to develop 20 to 30 new courses in the next three years. Over the next five years, the plan is to hire two-dozen new faculty members. The use of the term Jewish “civilization” instead of “studies” is supposed to reflect the expectation that scholarship will be expansive. “We want to encourage broader thinking on the civilizational role of Judaism,” Berlinerblau told the Forward. To fund all this growth, the program is aiming to raise a $25 million endowment.

Georgetown’s program emerges against two interesting backdrops. First is the university’s location in Washington, D.C., and its access to extraordinary national and international leaders and intellectuals. “People are aware in the Jewish community of the power this [program] can have by residing in Georgetown,” said Robert Burkett, senior adviser in the office of alumni and university relations.

Second is the university’s academic commitment to Arabic and Islamic studies. In addition to Georgetown’s department of Arabic language, literature and linguistics and the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies, there is the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding, to which Saudi Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal recently donated $20 million. Given this Catholic university’s ecumenical aspirations and its Jesuit dedication to social justice, the scholarly underrepresentation of the original Abrahamic religion constituted a major gap. “Not having [the Program for Jewish Civilization] was a missing link,” Burkett said. “This potentially makes Georgetown more whole.”

Twenty years from now, will more Catholic colleges be offering degrees in Jewish studies? Will the programs that exist today be defunct, like the University of San Francisco’s, or will they be thriving? Hard to tell. But the answers depend on whether Catholic scholars, university administrators and students see enough relevance in Jewish academic inquiry to make them want to commit real resources to the research, teaching and study of the Jewish experience.

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