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Columbia, JTS Mark Half a Century of Partnership

The Jewish Theological Seminary and Columbia University celebrated the 50th anniversary of their joint undergraduate program this past November, prompting administrators and students past and present to toast half a century of fruitful collaboration between Conservative Judaism’s flagship institution and New York City’s sole Ivy League school.

JTS Chancellor Ismar Schorsch called the dual degree “a quest for truth and faith in one program.”

The program has changed a great deal during the past five decades, and many people connected to it remarked on the changing nature of the unique and dynamic relationship between the schools.

“The program has changed in many ways,” said Shuly Rubin Schwartz, a professor of American Jewish history at JTS and the dean of Albert A. List College of Jewish Studies, the seminary’s undergraduate division. “Its mission today is broader. The philosophy of the program founders was to cultivate Jewish educators well versed in secular knowledge.”

But over time, the curriculum’s priorities have shifted. “Jews today are well grounded in secular studies,” Schwartz told the Forward. “The emphasis now is on broadening a secular education with Jewish learning.” While early students in the program were being groomed as Jewish educators, students today are more likely to become professionals who then serve their communities as lay leaders, Schwartz said.

The program has its origins in an agreement signed by then Columbia President Grayson Kirk and then JTS Chancellor Louis Finkelstein in May 1953. Kirk called the curriculum a product of “the growing awareness by both institutions of the need for a broad liberal arts background” for those who will “guide our country’s spiritual life.” A similar arrangement, called the “double degree” program, was instituted with Barnard College in 1979.

There are some 200 students currently enrolled in the program — double the number enrolled 10 years ago. The dual degree requires a total of 156 credits: 96 in Judaic study and then another 60 credits in liberal arts.

Although they are drawn to the curriculum for multiple reasons, joint program students seem united by one factor: drive. Despite the added workload (a simple Columbia bachelor’s degree requires the completion of only 124 credits), joint program students usually finish in four years, often with the aid of one or two summer sessions.

“Students in List are really the most incredible people I know,” joint program junior Elisheva Cohen said. “It’s a community of overachievers.” Though exhilarated by the Columbia experience, Cohen also values the “intimate, familylike” ambience offered by the seminary. “At JTS, I know about 80% of the people I see. It’s an environment that really lends itself to conversation and discussion.”

Like all joint program students, Cohen has two majors: one at Columbia (Middle Eastern studies), and one at the seminary (Jewish literature).

Suzanne Lipkin is also a junior (comparative literature/Jewish philosophy). In applying to colleges, Lipkin knew she was interested in Jewish studies. However, she found that the programs offered at most universities were simply too narrow. “Here you study everything: history, Hebrew, Talmud, literature, everything,” she said.

Fulfilling two degrees’ worth of requirements is tough and not without its inconveniences — Lipkin had to use a number of her elective credits in getting her Hebrew up to snuff — but for Lipkin, such sacrifices are worthwhile. “There are fewer opportunities to take electives,” she said, “but the whole appeal of the program is that it opens up an entire field of study.”

Senior Doron Kenter (history/Talmud), said that his decision to study in the joint program came “in sixth or seventh grade.” It was “a child’s idea,” he conceded, but when he began thinking seriously about college, the notion returned. While a junior in high school, Kenter went to Manhattan to visit his brother, who was a student in the joint program. Ultimately, Kenter applied early and got in.

Kenter suggested that his Columbia courses offer a special kind of freedom. “With my Jewish study centered at the seminary,” he said, “Columbia gives me a chance to branch out.”

Like many others, junior Hy Safran (political science/Bible) pointed to the academic excellence of both Columbia and the seminary as contributing factors in applying to the program. But the key factor, what makes the joint program a “trifecta” in his eyes, is its location. “The two institutions offer a lot,” he said, “but whatever they don’t, Manhattan does.”

According to Safran, classes at the two institutions are equally challenging, but they nevertheless arouse, in him at least, a difference in approach. “Columbia,” he said, “inspires awe, but there it’s all business. Columbia’s curriculum focuses on the head; JTS’s, on the heart.”

“When you walk into the seminary,” Detroit native Safran said, “you immediately feel a connection to the past and the present. You feel you are a part of the movement as it is continually shaping itself. Being a part of JTS, you feel the importance of Conservative Judaism, you feel you are a part of something pious, almost righteous. You are studying for a higher cause: for yourself — maybe for God — but certainly for the continuity of the Jewish faith.”

Since the joint program was instituted, the field of Jewish studies has blossomed at universities around the country, with many programs anchored by JTS graduates. Although clearly pleased by this development, Schwartz nevertheless sees JTS in a class by itself. “Jewish studies in a Jewish environment where Judaism is lived as well as learned,” she said. “That’s something you can’t get on a university campus.”

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