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Project feeds secular culture into universities' Jewish studies
JTA / May 21, 2006

By Larry Luxner

MIAMI Michael Silver, a Reform Jew from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and Brandon Greenfield, a Baltimore yeshiva bocher, might never have met if not for Dr. 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 courseload, 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 last week from UM, 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 Jewish secularism and secular Jewish culture.

Last month, the foundation announced five new recipients for the 2006-07 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," explained Myrna Baron, executive director of the New York-based Center for Cultural Judaism, which administers the grants.

On May 20, Felix Posen president of the Posen Foundation received an honorary doctorate from Tel Aviv University for his work in support of Jewish culture and education. The accolade recognizes Posen "for developing a new way of teaching Judaism, particularly to the non-religious, and for making the teaching of Judaism more meaningful and relevant to children from non-religious homes."

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 himself couldn't agree more.

Formerly a Jewish studies professor at Carleton University in Ottawa, he 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," said Rothman.

"Judaism used to be taught only in the religion department," he told JTA. "But the university is now is 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 multi-disciplinary."

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

Officials at the University of Virginia, which joined the Posen 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 U-Va. 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 L. Ochs, University of Virginia's Ida and Nathan Kolodiz Director of Jewish Studies.

That's also the view of longtime Jewish educator Haim Shaked.

"The Posen Foundation thinks it's very important to study this phenomenon of a Jew who is basically secular, and teach people," said Shaked, director of UM'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 UM faculty members affiliated with Judaic studies in one way or another, says he's observed an "explosion" of Judaic studies 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. "On the other hand, if there were more good high schools for Jewish students, there might be less of a need to do it at the university level."

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