Does a professor’s Jewish faith affect their students?

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By Haleigh Whisted
For Mitzpeh
@HaleighWhisted

 

With about 25 percent of this university’s student population practicing Judaism, it is no surprise that there are Jewish professors too. Religion is a significant part of many lives, and could affect the way people act in their classroom.

“I don’t tell students I am Jewish,” said Paul Scham, a research associate professor of the Gildenhorn Institute for Israel Studies department. But Scham does think that students are able to guess his religion from his experiences in Israel that he incorporates into his class. The professor teaches the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, so Judaism, which he is very attached to, is relevant to his teachings.

Paul Scham, executive director and research associate professor of the Gildenhorn Institute for Israel Studies at this university. Photo via UMD Jewish Studies department.

Jonathan Rosenberg, a tenured professor in the math department, explained that he attempts to be as apolitical as he possibly can when it comes to his classroom. “I am an observant Jew myself, but I don’t want to discriminate against other students, like observant Christians or other religions,”he said.

Julia Heimlich, a senior journalism and criminology double major, said that her one Jewish professor “definitely didn’t incorporate his faith into the curriculum.”

A teacher in the history and Jewish studies departments, Marsha Rozenblit, feels even stronger about  not incorporating her Jewish faith into the classroom.

“I have many non-Jewish students, but even that aside I am not in the business of inculcating a way of life,” said the history professor. She said that sharing personal opinions on religion or politics would be a violation of trust, and that she sticks to her strict moral rule of not influencing students in any way.

Multiple students seem to think that professors with a Jewish background react in a more understanding manner to High Holiday absences than non-Jewish professors.

Deborah Brown, a freshman operations management and business analytics major, noticed a slight difference between how her Jewish and non-Jewish professors handled her observance of the High Holidays. She said that she has had to obtain documentation proving her religion to some of her teachers in order to be excused for holiday observance. Brown believes that this request is extremely unnecessary because some students might not be legally or holistically Jewish, and would therefore not have the paperwork to prove that they follow the religion.

Brown also feels that non-Jewish professors have “more exasperation” and don’t understand the holidays’ importance like Jewish professors do.

“One of my non-Jewish professors asked me a question about the reasoning behind the holiday,” said Shoshana Monson, a freshman cell biology and genetics major.

Most observant Jewish professors either cancel their classes or find a substitute for the High Holidays so that they are able to attend services.

One of them is Rosenberg, who has heard about various incidents over the years of professors giving students a hard time for missing class for the High Holidays, but he thinks that most teachers overall are aware of the validity of religious-related absences.

The only time that Rosenberg will ask for documentation is when a student asks for an excused absence right before a High Holiday or for an extended period of time off for an obscure religious reason.

Brown and Heimlich feel that there is more room for empathy with the university’s policy on assignment extensions in relation to religious absences.

The policy “could do more for extending due dates so we don’t have to be overwhelmed,” said Brown.

One professor, Laura Beth Schnitker, who is a non-practicing cultural Jew, said that she makes an effort to plan the due dates of the various assignments around the days of observance so that her Jewish students won’t need extensions.

Many Jewish students have felt overwhelmed when they have to catch up on work due to holiday observance.

“I think that if a large enough portion of the Jewish community feels strongly that university staff and faculty should acknowledge the High Holidays, then by all means they should be listened to,” said Heimlich.

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