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Project Feeds Secular Culture into Universities’ Jewish Studies

May 22, 2006
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Michael Silver, a Reform Jew from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and Brandon Greenfield, a Baltimore yeshiva student, might never have met if not for Eugene Rothman’s modern Jewish civilization course at the University of Miami. Both were drawn to the class, but for very different reasons.

“Two winter breaks ago, I went on a birthright israel trip to look more into my Jewish background,” said Silver, a 21-year-old aiming for a career in music engineering.

“I was completely blown away, amazed. When I came back, I started reading books on Judaism and putting Judaism into my regular life. And when I got a chance to take this course, I decided I had some extra time and an easy course load, and would do it, especially since the people I live with are all non-Jewish.”

Greenfield, 23, has never been to Israel but has followed Orthodox tradition since he was 16. He attended Ner Israel Rabbinical College in Baltimore for four years, as well as summer school at the University of Miami during that time.

“Jewish schools are really strong in Talmud, whereas other areas like modern Jewish literature or philosophy are rarely taught as part of the curriculum,” he said. “Before, during the Middle Ages, everything was under the umbrella of religion. Now, religion is just one of many ways of forming your Jewish identity.”

Both Silver and Greenfield graduated this month from the University of Miami, which is one of 25 institutions in the United States and Israel now receiving funding from the Posen Foundation, a non-profit organization based in Switzerland. Under the foundation’s Posen Project, each institution receives $50,000 per year, for up to three years, to teach courses on secular Jewish culture.

Last month, the foundation announced five new recipients for the 2006-2007 academic year: Brown University, Binghamton University, Miami University of Ohio, Rutgers University and the Graduate Theological Union.

“Selections were made on the basis of a strong proposed core course; an understanding of what it means to teach courses in Jewish secularism or secular Jewish culture; scholarship in this area; and the ability to integrate these courses over time and make them permanent,” said Myrna Baron, executive director of the New York-based Center for Cultural Judaism, which administers the grants.

On Saturday, Felix Posen, president of the Posen Foundation, received an honorary doctorate from Tel Aviv University for his support of Jewish culture and education, particularly to the non-observant.

The Posen Foundation is especially interested in exposing students to the haskalah — a period of rapid secularization that began in the 18th century and is also known as the Jewish Enlightenment.

“The haskalah marked a dramatic change in intellectual Jewish thought and Jewish life,” said Baron, “yet students often don’t understand its impact unless it is taught as its own discrete subject.”

Rothman, formerly a Jewish studies professor at Carleton University in Canada, says today’s universities need to get away from the traditional categories by which courses are organized.

“You have the classics, history, philosophy and world religions, and Judaism comes under the heading of world religions. Therefore, it’s taught in a narrow form in which only the religious experience of the Jews is their central defining experience — even though it’s a total civilization and culture,” Rothman said.

“Judaism used to be taught only in the religion department,” he told JTA. “But the university is now catching up with what’s going on in the street. Jews are expressing themselves Jewishly, in ways other than what’s happening in the synagogue. Another reason is that there’s a breaking down within the university of the old disciplinary boundaries. The buzzword now is multidisciplinary.”

The Posen Project began five years ago, and is expected to reach 50 universities over the next few years.

Officials at the University of Virginia, which joined the project in 2005, say their institution has already seen benefits in and out of the classroom.

“The Posen courses and guest lectures have more than enriched our curriculum at UVa. They have expanded the awareness of our community of learners to include cultural Judaism as a vibrant and diverse heritage, a body of knowledge that is a vital pillar of Jewish Studies,” said Vanessa Ochs, the University of Virginia’s Ida and Nathan Kolodiz Director of Jewish Studies.

“The Posen Foundation thinks it’s very important to study this phenomenon of a Jew who is basically secular, and teach people,” said Haim Shaked, director of Miami’s Sue and Leonard Miller Center for Contemporary Judaic Studies. “There is not sufficient education about Judaism for Jewish students who do not consider themselves religious.”

Shaked, who supervises around 20 Miami faculty members affiliated with Judaic studies, said he’s observed an “explosion” of classes in the field — including courses in both Hebrew and Yiddish — to the point where there aren’t enough professors to fill all the positions required.

“Probably this is an instinctive response to concerns about the future of Judaism in this country,” he said.

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