At Tulane, using Jewish studies to grow Jewish life

Jewish film and sushi nights are among the more popular Jewish programs at Tulane University organized in conjunction with the school's growing Jewish studies program. (Michael Cohen)

Jewish film and sushi nights are among the more popular Jewish programs at Tulane University organized in conjunction with the school’s growing Jewish studies program. (Michael Cohen)

NEW YORK (JTA) — Three years ago, Tulane University seemed like fertile ground to grow a more robust Jewish studies program.

Approximately one-third of the school’s 6,000 undergraduates are Jews, Tulane was in the early stages of an ambitious project to construct a new building for its Hillel center and New Orleans was becoming a draw for young Jews involved in rebuilding projects after Hurricane Katrina.

Yet Tulane offered fewer than 10 courses in Jewish studies and had only about 150 students enrolled in them.

The potential, though, made Tulane one of six universities to receive a grant to hire a full-time post-doctoral teaching fellow to expand the Jewish studies program and raise its profile through cultural programs and other campus activities.

Enter Michael Cohen, who had just earned a doctorate in American Jewish history from Brandeis University.

More than two years later, his hire is yielding fruit: The university now offers 12 Jewish studies classes with more than 350 students enrolled. Cohen teaches two courses in American Jewish history that eac have 70 students. Tulane also has 90 students enrolled in Hebrew classes, including 20 in third-year Hebrew.

“It used to be that they would take Hebrew for a semester just to fulfill their language requirement,” Cohen said. “Now we are finding more and more students who are interested.”

Cohen attributes the budding interest in Jewish studies to a holistic approach that seeks to draw Jewish students not just to the classes, but also to opportunities for Jewish community and other experiences outside the classroom. Tulane’s Jewish studies department, which Cohen temporarily chairs, is working with Hillel and the Jewish Student Union to create programs to generate interest in Jewish culture and history.

Their most successful project is one devised with the Foundation for Jewish Culture that screens high-quality Jewish films — often including appearances by the filmmakers for Q & A sessions — and offers a free sushi dinner after the movie. Last year Tulane held five such events, which drew audiences of 175 to 225 per viewing.

The excitement about Jewish life in general at Tulane has led students to learn more in the classroom, Cohen says.

“We have been able to build off of it and tap into the energy,” he said. “Taking Jewish studies courses has become the thing to do. We have a good buzz. Now it is a cool thing to do and not a shame thing.”

Cohen also has tried to involve the broader New Orleans community in the Jewish growth on campus, offering students service opportunities in the local Jewish community and arranging for Tulane professors to speak at local synagogues.

With only two professors dedicated to Jewish studies, the department has had to rely on professors from other departments to pitch in. For instance, next semester an English professor will teach a class on contemporary American Jewish literature.

The funding of Cohen’s position was part of a larger project called the Jewish Studies Expansion Program. Funded by the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Foundation and administered by the Foundation for Jewish Culture, it gave six schools — Tulane, American University, Ohio University, the University of Delaware, Northeastern University and Towson State University — $80,000 over two years that each had to match to make a Jewish studies hire.

The grant at Tulane expired after last semester, but Cohen has been retained by the university and is now on a tenure track. Two of the other universities involved in the grant project also have retained their professors, according to Paul Zakrzewski, the director of the Jewish Studies Expansion Program.

Now a second cohort of six schools are receiving two-year grants from the program: the University of California, Santa Cruz; Oberlin College; Syracuse University; Colgate University; Portland State University; and the University of Arizona.

“The idea behind the grant is that there is research showing that Jewish studies is a really potent way of reaching Jewish and non-Jewish students interested in Jewish culture," Zakrzewski said, "but not interested in obvious Jewish outlets on campus like Hillel or Chabad.”

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