Jewish studies minor proposal seeks to improve campus diversity

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    A Jewish studies minor is in the planning stages at TCU in the hopes of bringing an opportunity for diversity and understanding for undergraduate students.

    The Brite Divinity School at TCU has offered a Jewish studies program for about 12 to 15 years now, according to Ariel Feldman, director of the Jewish studies program and assistant professor of Jewish studies.

    “It could be a nice addition to the Jewish studies program that Brite does have, to create something broader for TCU folks,” Feldman said. “Every major institution has something about Jewish culture as a part of their curriculum, why not TCU?”

    Background of Brite Divinity Jewish studies program

    The program that is available at Brite started with the help of Ann Louden, TCU chancellor’s associate for strategic partnerships.

    The idea for the program came up when she met with a friend that is a physician in Fort Worth. Dr. Gary Price had been having a conversation with a Jewish colleague about why the largest university in Fort Worth’s community didn’t already have a program that focused on religious diversity.

    “Gary came to me and said, ‘Is it possible?’” Louden said. “He felt a diverse religious studies program would really round out the offers that TCU had.”

    Louden took the idea to administration and they decided that the most logical place to house such a program would be at the Brite Divinity school.

    Her position at the time was director of principal gifts. As such, she spoke to many members of the community about funding the program.

    After much outreach, an endowed chair position was created and the program began at Brite.

    The program includes a professor with an endowed chair, a couple of lectureships and a Burnett scholar.

    One couple that was highly active in the effort to create such a program was Stanley and Marcia Kurtz. Marcia is the current president and one of the directors for the Gates of Chai lecture series.

    “I felt like TCU was a Christian organization and that it would be nice for them to learn about Judaism,” Mrs. Kurtz said. “I was thrilled to be involved in an opportunity to create a Jewish program.”

    Mr. Kurtz said that once they formed a strong bond with the Brite school and this program, they brought in a number of people from the Jewish community to also take an active interest.

    Another member of the program is Richard Spellman, the vice president of the Gates of Chai. He said the original focus of the program was to “enhance the level of knowledge at TCU and the greater community about the relationship of Judaism to Christianity and to enhance the quality of communication between these two communities in Fort Worth.”

    While the program at Brite has created many new connections between the Jewish and Christian communities around TCU, Feldman said there is an area where the program lacks in availability.

    “The undergraduate students here are left unattended,” Feldman said. Most of the courses he teaches are offered to the students pursuing doctorates and master’s degrees from Brite. He only teaches one course to undergraduate students in the TCU religion department.

    According to Louden, however, the notion of this program spreading to the undergraduate program was discussed even when it was first developed many years ago.

    The process the proposal is going through

    About two years ago, Feldman began proposing the idea of a Jewish studies minor at TCU.

    “Thinking about broadening the program to TCU students, realizing that Jewish contribution to Western culture is such a broad thing, and that one course just can’t cover it all, I began talking to the TCU religion department chair, Dr. Nadia Lahutsky,” Feldman said.

    After forming the initiative, Feldman and Lahutsky met with Chancellor Boschini, a recruiter for freshman admissions, Heath Einstein, and representatives from different departments that were involved.

    What came from the meeting was a consensus on wanting to make TCU more inviting for a diverse group of students, including Jewish students.

    Feldman began to develop a growing list of classes already in place at TCU that might fit a Jewish studies minor.

    Lahutsky, who Feldman refers to as the “Guardian Angel” of the initiative, said that one complicated piece of the puzzle was coming up with a way to offer the language of Hebrew.

    “It’s possible we might hire an adjunct professor to teach Hebrew in the future,” Lahutsky said. “For now we have made arrangements to have any TCU student who wanted Hebrew, to take biblical Hebrew through courses offered at Brite.”

    She said that now that the last piece has been worked out, they are almost to the stage of sending the proposal to the AddRan curriculum committee. Once they submit it, the committee will look it over and “tweak” the proposal to make it stronger. From there, it will continue to go through the curriculum approval process.

    “Its not a done deal yet, it’s a proposal,” Lahutsky said. “We presume nothing.”

    She said that if the minor does get approved, they will try to have it implemented by fall of 2015.

    What would the minor look like?

    “The program isn’t being created from scratch,” Feldman said.

    The courses that would be “cross-listed” under the Jewish studies minor are courses that are already being taught on campus.

    The growing list of classes that would fit the requirements include classes from departments such as religion, social work, anthropology, geography, nutrition, political science and history.

    Lahutsky said that minor would be similar to the classical studies, Asian studies and Latino studies minors that at TCU. Similar to these minors, students would need 18 credit hours from at least three departments.

    “You cobble together appropriate courses that at the end of 18 hours, someone will have spent an appropriate amount of time thinking about what it means to be Jewish,” she said.

    She believes that a minor can do two things: dig deeper into your major course of study or give you something entirely new to think about.

    “I think it provides another opportunity to view the world through a different lens,” she said. “It makes you think differently about what you see in the news, process information differently, and understand some phenomenon that the rest of us won’t really see.”

    In terms of how the program offered here would be unique, Feldman said that it would be that the professors teaching these courses are not Jewish.

    “In a way, it nicely summarizes what this institution can offer,” he said, “a program that helps to bridge the Christian and Jewish traditions.”

    Feldman hopes that the minor will attract not just Jewish students and that it will provide an opportunity for both Jewish and non-Jewish students to feel comfortable.

    He said that when it comes to the possibility of providing new classes under the minor, it would be a gradual process in the future.

    A Jewish studies minor at a university with Christian in the name

    When it comes to having “Christian” in the university’s title, Feldman referenced something he heard from Heath Einstein, freshman admissions recruiter:

    “We should make a special effort to bring in more Jewish students to TCU and this new initiative could be one of the many ways to break the ice that the name immediately creates.”

    In an article reported in The Jewish Week, Feldman said, “The name ‘Christian’ is problematic in influencing some Jews to consider the school as a place for matriculation.”

    But he said that for TCU, this new minor could be an opportunity to diversify offerings. “It can teach students how important it is to know better each other’s backgrounds and cultures and languages,” he said.

    Feldman said this has to do with pulling people together and nothing to do with facilitating Jews to become Christians.

    About 90 to 95 percent of students in his Introduction to Judaism course are not Jewish. “I see lots of curiosity and interest from many of my non-Jewish students,” he said.

    When the program was being introduced at Brite Divinity, Louden said she came across this issue a few times.

    “The title of Christian to some means different things than it does to others,” she said. “I think adding an undergraduate minor just strengthens our ecumenical history and tradition; and it offers a larger sampling of opportunity for students to choose the kind of academic path they want to take.”

    Not only would this program encourage academic growth, but it would bridge the gap between religious community members as well.

    Mrs. Kurtz said it would be a great opportunity because it would “bring the Jewish community into the Christian community and create friendship and understanding.”

    Rachel Rudberg is the student president of the TCU Hillel program, a Jewish based society on campus. She agrees that the name “Christian” shouldn’t cause hesitation.

    “Core Christian morals, ethics, and values are the same as core Jewish morals, ethics, and values,” she said. “Also, Christianity, Catholicism, Islam, and many other religions branch off of Judaism. I think having a Jewish program for all students would open their eyes and show them where their religion began.”

    What would this mean for TCU?

    “If we are able to get this approved, I think we are going to be the only private institution in northern Texas that offers anything this close to a Jewish studies Program.” Feldman said.

    He said most major universities already have quite vibrant Jewish studies programs, and this would only advance the quality of our institution.

    It was Feldman’s argument that these days all great universities have Jewish studies programs, which persuaded Lahutsky to want to get involved in the first place.

    “It didn’t seem like a good thing to ignore that,” Lahutsky said, “Especially since it was becoming clear that we had the resources to do it.”

    One of the main motivations behind this initiative is to increase diversity in the TCU community.

    “Diversity is an important constituent for us,” Feldman said. “The idea of finding a way to integrate a minority into the majority population is fundamental for us.”

    He went on to say, “I’m proud of us for doing this, showing others that we mean it when we speak about diversities and minorities and appreciating the differences of people and their cultures.”

    Louden felt the same way about providing an opportunity for diversity on campus.

    “The more broadly we talk about faith and spiritual beliefs and have an open community for discussion and comparison and finding meaning, the more educated we become,” she said.

    As a retired academic himself, Mr. Kurtz felt strongly about a diverse education for undergraduate students.

    “Anything that broadens undergraduate understanding of the relationship of various religious connections, is what a university should be doing in terms of undergraduate education,” he said.

    It wasn’t just professors and academics who agreed; Rudberg even said this minor would add more diversity to the university.

    “I think adding a Jewish studies minor is especially important for those who may have preconceived notions about Jewish people in general,” she said. “Even if they do not take the class, the fact that they know TCU offers it may open their eyes a little more.”

    Lahutsky said that this is a big step and an exciting proposal for TCU. “For now we will hope and wait,” she said. “But if it goes through, the first person who signs up as a Jewish studies minor, I may just have to take them to lunch!”