Starting next year, Temple University students will likely no longer be able to major or minor in Hebrew. Though board members must officially approve the change, officials say budgetary concerns and low enrollments make it practically a done deal.
While the school will continue to offer a four-semester sequence of Hebrew for those who want to take it as a language requirement or an elective, program supporters worry that losing the long-standing certification option could deal a crushing blow to current and prospective students.
"Who is teaching Hebrew?" lamented Hanoch Guy, 75, a former department head who has continued teaching the subject as well as Holocaust literature and other Hebrew culture classes part-time. "The only one that is left is Penn. Hebrew will be like Hindi, Hungarian, any other remote language."
By Guy's memory, Temple's Hebrew program started roughly 60 years ago. At one point, the department had five to eight faculty members, said Laura Levitt, a Jewish and women's studies professor.
"It was a major piece of what was Jewish at Temple University," she said, noting that Jewish studies didn't even enter the academic scene until the 1990s.
But the university never fully replaced Guy, the department's last tenured professor, when he retired nine years ago. Instead, his wife, Ayala, took over as the lone full-time faculty member, while Guy and other adjuncts taught courses here and there.
According to university officials, currently only one student -- a rising senior -- is majoring in Hebrew; seven others have declared the minor. Ayala Guy, however, counted at least five current majors and four minors.
"We just don't have the financial capacity to run a major with such a tiny number of people in it," said Teresa Scott Soufas, dean of the College of Liberal Arts.
"For the students' sake," Soufas said, "they need to be in an atmosphere where they can exchange ideas with peers. Otherwise, it's just a series of independent studies."
She declined to say how much money the university would save by shrinking the program, which includes reducing Ayala Guy's full-time position to an adjunct. Ayala Guy and one other adjunct would each teach two of the remaining Hebrew courses.
Cutting or suspending majors happens fairly frequently, Soufas said, and with squeezed state appropriations, "everybody's going to have to understand the economic setting we're in."
Russian, she said, may face the same ax. "There's no joy in eliminating a major," she said. "It's just not viable."
Per university policy, Soufas said, she'll make sure that current majors and minors can access the upper-level courses needed to complete their program. Likewise, a few Hebrew culture and literature courses could potentially be scheduled if at least 10 students sign up.
Levitt said she's glad some courses will remain, but losing a full-time Hebrew professor still hurts Jewish studies students who "need to have more than the minimal."
Jewish studies majors at Temple are required to take four Hebrew courses; minors must take three. Lately, Levitt said, more of them have been testing out of the intro courses and it's not clear what, if anything, would be available to fulfill that requirement once upper-level courses get cut. Even if independent study options for advanced students remain, Levitt said, without a full-time Hebrew faculty member, who would oversee them or administer placement exams?
Levitt said she understands that universities have faced tremendous pressure to cut costs, leaving no money for small interdisciplinary programs. That said, she continued, "there's a bit of a disconnect between this decision and the otherwise sense of growth" in Jewish social and academic life on campus.
Beyond the addition of Jewish studies, Levitt noted that in the past decade, school administrators hired a number of top-notch Jewish professors, opened a multimillion dollar Hillel center with a kosher deli, instituted the Feinstein Center for American Jewish History and Center for Afro-Jewish Studies and, most recently, welcomed a privately funded Israel studies scholar. Rakefet Zalashik, the first visiting scholar, arrived in fall 2010 and stayed for a second year. A faculty group will soon screen applications for the next scholar, who is expected to start in fall 2012, Soufas said.
Even students who don't participate in the academic programs look at them as signs that the school is friendly to Jews, Rabbi Howard Alpert, executive director of Hillel of Greater Philadelphia, said, calling the move to reduce Hebrew a "strategic error."
Having Hebrew and Jewish studies "makes the campus more attractive to a Jewish population," Alpert said, and provides a "non-intimidating environment" to examine "who they are as Jews."
"It's a great entranceway for students who know that they come from Jewish families but are just beginning to explore what that might mean for themselves," Alpert said. "These are frequently students who find it's too intimidating to get involved with Jewish programs outside the academic world right now."
Senior Rachel Pogolowitz, 22, a Jewish studies major and Hebrew minor from Lower Merion, said she feels sorry for the students who might not get to take classes with the Guys. Ayala Guy, she said, was by far her favorite professor.
"She's so concerned with getting her students to do well, which is so different from any other professor I had," said Pogolowitz, who even wrote a letter urging the dean to reconsider the cuts. "It's a great opportunity to learn a language that you might not have learned the actual fundamentals of when you were actually going to Hebrew school."
As a public university, Hanoch Guy said, Temple should feel obligated to maintain programs that have a strong meaning to the local community. Former Hebrew graduates have gone on to become rabbis or move to Israel, not to mention Christians who were just interested in the subject matter, said the Elkins Park resident.
At the same time, Guy can't deny the dwindling interest. All four of his fall course offerings were canceled due to low enrollment. Another Holocaust course suffered the same fate this coming semester, though he reached the minimum for another entitled "Jewish Wit and Humor."
"The wit is there," Guy said. "The humor, I don't know."