By Brittany Britto
Members of the Jewish community from across the country gathered in Tawes Hall last month for a daylong conference celebrating 40 years of Jewish studies at this university.
“Jewish Studies in America: Past, Present and Future,” a series of roundtable discussions, brought together faculty, alumni and other active members of the Jewish studies community Nov. 16. The event, hosted by the Meyerhoff Center for Jewish Studies, kicked off with dialogue about the significance of Jewish languages and the relationship between Israeli and Jewish studies. It also looked at the program’s overall impact on alumni and the broader community.
“It was a time of reflection and looking back on what we achieved, but a chance to talk and brainstorm where we can go in the future,” said Charles Manekin, director of the Meyerhoff Center. “We were discovering some of the challenges that Jewish studies faces, particularly in the time of shrinking resources of the humanities and a changing university, which has a lot of emphasis on technology and innovation.”
Associate professor of sociology Kris Marsh presented data from surveys of alumni between 2000 and 2009. The surveys revealed that most Jewish studies majors selected the program because of a positive experience with a professor, a desire to achieve professional training in a Jewish service or educational position, or a desire to learn Jewish languages and expand knowledge of Jewish heritage in an academic setting.
The survey results also showed that 48 percent of Jewish studies graduates went on to careers in educational, health or service fields, with few working outside of the Jewish sphere. Sixty-four percent of majors were women of Jewish descent, Marsh said.
Jewish studies alumna Rabbi Ashira Konigsburg, who came from New York to attend the conference, fit into that bracket.
“I didn’t come to Maryland to be a Jewish studies major, but it ended up the right thing for me,” said Konigsburg, who started in aerospace engineering, a program she said was stringent with its course requirements. “I liked Jewish studies because of its interdisciplinary nature and because of the variety of classes.”
Konigsburg went on to rabbinical school at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York after graduation to serve the Jewish community.
“It seems like the substantive part of how Jewish studies helps the outside [not Jewish-affiliated] world doesn’t translate as well,” said Marsh, who saw a need for diversity both in Jewish studies major candidates and the scope of their potential careers.
University of Washington Jewish Studies Professor Noam Pianko called for expansion in the program.
“My concern is we really need to think about how we can transform our degree program to recognize what people want outside of Jewish studies,” Pianko said. “It’s a no-brainer that we are serving the community, and that’s very important part of what an academic is supposed to do, but we need to be able to explain how our ideas and what we study are relevant more broadly to the world in which we live.”
Pianko said he envisions Jewish studies being an analytical lens for thinking about some of today’s most pressing issues, including state-diaspora relationships and minority experience, however, that it was important to expand the knowledge of Jewish studies in innovative ways. One suggestion was the Internet.
“We need to think of new programming models,” Pianko said. “Jewish studies is absent in the digital space with a few exceptions. We should be taking the knowledge that we have and putting it in the place where everybody is looking for information.”
University of Pennsylvania Professor of Jewish Modern History David Ruderman saw a different approach.
“Our primary role is to create scholarship, to write the best books we can, to be the best scholars we can and to have an impact on the humanities and the social sciences,” Ruderman said.
Following the conference, more than 100 guests celebrated the Meyerhoff Center’s 40th anniversary at a banquet in Baltimore. There, they continued the dialogue about Jewish studies while dining with past directors of the Meyerhoff Center, Manekin said.
Senior psychology major Alexander Lichtenberg, one of about half dozen students who attended the banquet, said he was struck by the exchange between faculty members.
“It was very interesting to see faculty so passionate and making very well-formed arguments,” Lichtenberg said. “It just showed that Jewish studies is a necessary component of Western civilization and a way of studying our culture.”