Academic journal article Shofar

Jewish Studies in North American Colleges and Universities: Yesterday , Today , and Tomorrow

Academic journal article Shofar

Jewish Studies in North American Colleges and Universities: Yesterday , Today , and Tomorrow

Article excerpt


The establishment of academic Jewish Studies positions and programs at a significant number of public and private North American institutions of higher education during the final third of the twentieth century is an interesting and complex phenomenon. In these remarks, the author provides a brief historical overview of academic Jewish Studies in North America and reflects on the present state of Jewish Studies programs in secular higher education settings and their ongoing challenges and future prospects. Her conclusions are neither comprehensive nor data-driven nor do they focus on the vibrant and excellent scholarship that characterizes Jewish Studies in 2013. Rather, the paper is based on the research of other scholars and the author's experiences as a professor and administrator in Jewish Studies programs and departments at three public universities and one private university over the past four decades and as President of the Association for Jewish Studies between 2004 and 2006. The author also draws on her larger administrative perspective as an academic dean, since 2009, for seventeen Humanities departments and programs at the University of Oregon. The essay focuses on undergraduate Jewish Studies; the topics discussed are: Jewish Studies in North America: An Overview; Women and Academic Jewish Studies; Jewish Studies Instruction; Connections with Jewish Students and Jewish Organizations; Links with Israel; Other International Relationships; Donors and Endowments; Present Realities and Future Challenges.

Academic Jewish Studies refers to the systematic and analytical study of the Jewish experience using modern research tools and methodologies.1 Schol- ars of academic Jewish Studies use a range of disciplinary approaches from the humanities and social studies to investigate and teach aspects of Jewish religion, history, thought, and culture, as well as associated languages and literatures. Academic Jewish Studies research and teaching at their best are nondoctrinal, nonparochial, and nondenominational; they take place in secular public and private institutions of higher education and in some seminaries, both Jewish and Christian. Some of these institutions offer only undergraduate courses, sometimes with a major or minor in Jewish Stud- ies; others have graduate programs at the M.A. or doctoral levels. Scholars specializing in academic Jewish Studies are not necessarily Jews and their students do not fit a particular profile. Academic Jewish Studies instruction offers access to a body of knowledge and potential for intellectual growth to all interested students, regardless of their religious or ethnic backgrounds. There are no absolute data on the number of positions, programs, and de- partments in Jewish Studies in the United States and Canada. In 2013, the website of the Association of Jewish Studies ( listed more than 200 Jewish Studies programs or departments and 230 endowed posi- tions at North American colleges and universities.


The substantial expansion of Jewish Studies in North American universi- ties is a relatively recent phenomenon. Although Hebrew language and literature was included in the curriculum of several of the earliest colleges to be established on the North American continent in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, it was taught as part of a theologically oriented cur- riculum designed to assist potential Christian clergymen in understanding their religious heritage. Some instructors of Hebrew, such as Judah Monis, who taught at Harvard University between 1722 and 1760, were Jews or of Jewish background.2

Jewish Studies at American universities were truly established in the 1890s under the influence of German Jewish scholarship, specifically the Wissenschaft des Judentums (scientific study of Judaism) movement. In the late-nineteenth-century United States, some positions in academic Jewish learning were established at secular universities, most often with the active communal and financial support of members of the American Jewish com- munity. …

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