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From the Director: The Value of Jewish Studies for a Diverse Student Population

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Lori_250This semester, I had the pleasure of teaching Hebrew Bible to a remarkably diverse group of freshmen in the Honors program, students from many backgrounds and countries of origin.  Last week, as we studied  the Book of Exodus, the paradigmatic story of liberation and rebirth, while crocuses were pushing their way up from still snowy Boston ground, my students made cross-cultural connections, seasonal connections, and observations about post-biblical resonances in literature.

Northeastern’s pre-Passover events included a presentation by award-winning writer Nathan Englander. Englander spoke powerfully, emphasizing that his stories, steeped though they are in his own Jewish experiences, are not Jewish stories, per se; although he writes about Jews in his fiction, he is writing about “people.”  Englander, whose accomplishments include a new translation of the Haggadah, also talked about his years living in Israel and their contribution to his ways of thinking.

We have also been enhancing the Jewish Studies program with more opportunities to study contemporary Israel.  I have been on a faculty search committee to hire a Professor of Israel Studies, and we hope to complete that process this spring.  We have also been energetically engaged in planning the details of our Dialogue of Civilization summer study abroad program to Israel.  I will accompany fourteen Northeastern students from May 19-June 20, offering two courses under the rubric “The Complexities of Contemporary Israel.” One course will be taught by an Israeli political scientist; I will teach about the representation of Israel in Israeli literature and art.  We will integrate our studies with tours, visiting lectures, and experiential learning. The students range from freshmen to graduating seniors; some major in International Affairs, others in Journalism, still others in Human Services and many other departments.  Their personal backgrounds are also widely varied.  In support of the Dialogue’s bringing students to Israel to learn, we received a $14,000 grant from MASA—a program of the Jewish Agency and the Israeli government—which is giving these awards for the first time to student groups that include non-Jewish participants.

Annually, Northeastern offers a week of programs that commemorate the Holocaust, and we invite the larger community to think seriously about what lessons we must draw for our own historical moment.  As you will read in this issue of Haverim, a highlight of the week will be literary critic Daniel Mendelsohn, author of the monumental memoir The Lost:  The Search for Six of Six Million.  Mendelsohn will speak in particular about how the stories of the Holocaust will necessarily change in the hands of rising generations.

In this issue of Haverim, you will read about student projects and a fascinating range of accomplishments by our colleagues in Jewish Studies at Northeastern, again in a range of fields.  I have come to know students of Jewish Studies who have loved the texts and traditions of Judaism all of their lives and now seek an academic appreciation of Judaism.  Others come to the subject from a cultural distance, curious about this ancient, continuous, influential religious and cultural tradition; sometimes they are so excited by what they discover that they minor in Jewish Studies.  Others return from Northeastern’s Birthright trip determined to discover the rest of their birthright:  Judaism and Jewish culture.  My colleagues and I are continually challenged to re-describe the importance of Jewish Studies to a well-rounded liberal arts education.

What is the importance of Jewish Studies to a well-rounded education? Collaborating with University of Colorado Professor David Shneer on a grant application to the National Endowment for the Humanities this spring, we wrote:  “Although Jews are a small minority population (currently 0.2% worldwide), it is significant that most prominent universities offer Jewish Studies because familiarity with the world’s oldest monotheistic religion is presumed necessary for cultural literacy and to understanding those cultures that Judaism has influenced.  The Jewish experience is characterized by cultural and ethnic diversity reflected in a wide range of expressions of music, art, and literature.  The defining aspects of Jewish identity (religion, ethnicity, history, culture, nationality) are critical categories to understanding today’s complex and diverse societies.  Jewish Studies introduces students not only to theories behind these concepts but also to how they shape everyday lives.  In Jewish Studies classes, students explore subjects such as identity, assimilation, culture, religion, and social justice, and they acquire tools and knowledge for a more critical and analytical understanding of the religious and secular world around them.”

Jewish Studies at Northeastern is a vibrant and expanding program with ever-widening reach and programs that increasingly draw participation from beyond the campus.  We are especially grateful to Betty Brudnick and The Ruderman Family Foundation, each of whom has funded student merit scholarships for Jewish Studies students.  The competition for these $5000 awards draws attention to our program and motivates interested students to declare the minor or major and refine their interests.  The Ruderman Family Foundation has also supported the lectureship that brought Art Spiegelman to campus last year and Nathan Englander this year.  These high-profile events showcase our program and enable us to better cultivate fruitful relationships with colleagues and friends.

Thank you for your interest in Jewish Studies at Northeastern.  It is humbling and thrilling to play a role in gifting students with an appreciation of the incomparable history, culture, and religion of the Jewish people.