Judaic Studies Classes See Enrollment Boom

Rise Is Most Apparent Among Those With Little or No Prior Jewish Education

By Nacha Cattan

Published January 23, 2004, issue of January 23, 2004.
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Lauren Twigg entered San Diego State University as an undergraduate four years ago with a game plan: She would study business and become a chief executive officer of a powerful company. But what she didn’t bank on was that she’d be bored to tears by her math and economics courses.

“I figured if I didn’t like the studying, I wasn’t going to like the work,” she told the Forward.

A former student at a weekly Hebrew school, Twigg decided to dabble in her tradition by taking a course in Jewish studies. After completing several classes and one very personal project that included her grandfather’s Judaic-themed artwork, she was hooked. “I wasn’t only learning about Jews as a whole, but something specific about my history,” she said.

Twigg become the second Jewish studies major to graduate from San Diego State, which only recently began offering bachelor’s degrees in the field. Now 22, Twigg is teaching Torah classes to children at a local Reform synagogue and planning to pursue a master’s degree in Jewish education.

Twigg’s story may be unusual, but it is indicative of a growing trend. Jewish studies classes have become increasingly popular among Jewish college students of all backgrounds. So reports the National Jewish Population Survey 2000-01, which found that 41% of current Jewish undergraduate and graduate students have taken a Jewish studies class as part of their coursework.

What has not been widely reported, however, is data about who is taking these classes: The survey shows that more Jewish students with little or no prior Jewish education are taking Judaic studies courses today than in the past.

According to an analysis performed by the survey’s senior consultant, Steven Cohen, a majority of respondents aged 18 to 34 who had attended Jewish day school have taken a Judaic studies course in college. When respondents aged 50 to 64 who had attended day schools were asked the same question, barely two-fifths said they took a Judaic studies course in college.

But Cohen said the bigger news is that the numbers have jumped dramatically for people with little or no Jewish educational background. Among people with no prior Jewish education, nearly a quarter of young respondents have taken a Judaic studies course, twice the rate of older respondents. And the biggest spike was among those who attended Hebrew schools, but not Jewish day schools: more than a third of younger respondents, triple the proportion of older respondents.

“Among older people it was day school students who led the way to Jewish studies classes,” Cohen said. “Among recent students the non-day school students have significantly raised their participation compared to their older counterparts.”

Cohen said this trend shows that “it’s acceptable to be Jewishly educated today. It’s no longer seen as ghettoizing.”

But other experts say the courses are reaching more Jews with no background in religious instruction because of an explosion of Jewish studies on campuses across the United States since the discipline first was established in the early 1970s. They say the proliferation of accredited classes in Judaism has reached many unaffiliated Jews at colleges that are small, far from urban centers or not known for their Jewish student population.

In the past 10 years alone the Association for Jewish Studies doubled its membership of professors who teach Judaic studies from approximately 800 to 1500, according to its president, Judith Baskin.

“It’s the funding,” said Shaul Kelner, a senior research associate at The Maurice and Marilyn Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis University. Private donors are sponsoring department chairs like never before, he said. “You have supply and demand. We know supply has increased. Does it account for all of it? I don’t know. But now you’re having Jewish studies courses on campuses where Jews are less Jewishly educated.”

Programs also are finding innovative ways to attract Jews of all feathers, in addition to non-Jews. Many of them now offer Jewish subjects that fulfill academic requirements, or topics that attract the unconventional thinker such as Kabbalah and Jewish authors from Eastern Europe.

Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, a school known more for its Quaker roots than its Jewish students, has built a beit midrash, or religious study hall. But this is not your father’s beit midrash. Helen Plotkin, the director of the project, is quick to explain that the room lined with books of classical Jewish texts is an area where academia meets tradition, not devotion. She teaches students how to parse Talmudic texts using the traditional method of chavrutha study, which involves one-on-one examination and debate.

In most cases, Plotkin said, “you have to become a baal teshuva and go to Yeshiva University and make an identity shift in order to learn these texts.” But this study hall offers a way to examine them as a cultural activity. She said students of all faiths have found this combination very attractive.

Several professors said that the attraction for less-affiliated Jews lies in the neutrality of such classes. “The university gives a certain aura of objectivity to the courses,” said Lawrence Baron, the director of the Lipinsky Institute for Judaic Studies at San Diego State. “Students can study Judaism and various aspects of Jewish history from a perspective that is more academic and not attached to the synagogue or working toward a bar mitzvah.”

Whatever the reason, Jewish studies professors contacted by the Forward concur that large numbers of unaffiliated Jews are flocking to their classrooms.

“Maybe one out of three Jewish students in my class have something beyond a bar mitzvah,” said Baron.

Geography seems to play a role in at least one case. Baskin of the Jewish Studies Association said that when she recently transferred from the University at Albany in New York to the University of Oregon, the percentage of Jewish students who had no religious education jumped from about 15% to about 25%.

“It may reflect mixed families,” said Baskin, who is now the director of the Harold Schnitzer Family Program in Judaic Studies at the University of Oregon. “Many of my students on the West Coast came from interfaith families. It also may reflect the children of various immigrants — Israelis, Iranians and Russians — who were not synagogue-affiliated.”

While it is not clear to what extent a Jewish experience on campus can influence one’s future affiliation with Judaism, a study sponsored by The Avi Chai Foundation is seeking to find ways to enhance that experience. One of the study’s researchers, Amy Sales, a senior research associate at the Cohen Center, said that during the ongoing survey of 4,000 college students at 20 schools, she couldn’t help but discover the important place that Jewish studies held on campus. Students she interviewed often would tell her, “after you go to Hillel, go to the Jewish studies department,” Sales said.

For Twigg, synagogue school was a start, but it was at the university that she cut her path to Jewish education. “Each class enriched my personal knowledge of Judaism in a way I could not have gotten from a synagogue class,” she said, “because it was taught in a secular setting.”

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