In 1998, Saving Private Ryan premiered in theaters, the Monica Lewinsky scandal dominated headlines and Drexel University started its Judaic Studies program.
That year, a group of Drexel faculty led by the late Doreen Steg, a professor of human behavior and development, recruited Rakhmiel Peltz from Columbia University to found the program, which is offered to students as a Louis Stein Minor in Judaic Studies. This year, the program celebrates its 20th anniversary.
A celebration in May will recognize the anniversary. This year’s lectures and events, such as a March 11 event on the Soviet Jewry movement, also mark the 20th anniversary. Peltz said the program’s events have always been open to the community and free of charge.
“We’ve always invited the community in,” he said. “We’re one of the Jewish studies programs where the community has benefited from our existence, too, and yet, at the same time, our students benefit from getting to know who they are in the community.”
The late Constantine Papadakis, Drexel’s president in 1998, supported the development of the program after taking a trip to Israel. He was impressed by the start-up culture of the country and wanted to create a co-op program for students to work there. Though learning about Judaism is not necessary to go to Israel, Peltz noted, Papadakis wanted to create the Judaic Studies program to encourage students to participate in the co-op program.
Peltz based the program on similar curriculum in other schools, with introductory courses on Jewish biblical history, medieval history and modern history.
Soon after the program’s creation, the second intifada broke out, and the co-op program in Israel ended. Though individual students have continued to go to Israel for co-op, the university has not been able to recreate the program because of Israel’s visa requirements.
The coursework is similar to other universities’ Judaic studies program, but Drexel’s program differentiates itself in several ways, Peltz said. Over the years, for example, students have done intergenerational work with day school students and senior citizens.
Peltz said the majority of the students in the program have not been Jewish, another factor that differentiates it.
Toni Pitock, adjunct faculty in the Judaic Studies department, teaches classes on ancient Jewish literature and civilization, Jewish life and culture in the Middle Ages, and the history of the Holocaust. Before she started teaching in the Judaic Studies program, she thought most of the students in the program would be Jewish and was surprised to find that was not the case.
“It’s not only Jewish students who are interested,” she said. “I’ve had Asians — both Asian-Americans and foreign students. Right now, I have an African student in my class who’s from Togo. It creates a tolerant environment and an environment where people are understanding each other’s cultures.”
Over the past two decades, program successes have included some of the guests it has brought to Drexel, like artist Samuel Bak in 2005, or Cantor Natasha Hirschhorn and novelist Nadia Kalman in 2012.
The program has also faced its fair number of challenges, similar to what other liberal arts programs face. Students come to college more career-oriented than before and, therefore, are less likely to pursue a liberal arts education.
“Students are constantly changing at all schools, in background, knowledge and attitude,” Peltz said.
Students aren’t as comfortable with reading and writing as they used to be, he said. They’re a lot more visual now as well.
Peltz said that it has become more difficult to find faculty to teach the Judaic Studies courses. The lack of opportunity for individuals with doctorate degrees prompts them to leave their fields in pursuit of something that will better allow them to support themselves and their families.
This has put Judaic studies, as well as other liberal arts subjects, on the back burner.
“People do not come to college to study these kinds of things,” Peltz said. “It’s a general phenomenon, and it’s not a major. I’m sorry to say it’s the same thing for something like history at our kind of school.”
Looking to the future, Peltz said he hopes the program can continue.
“We hope to be able to grow an endowment to make sure there’ll be a Jewish studies program in the future,” he said. “The special things [like the special guests] were helped by those financial donations of members in the Jewish community, and therefore, I was able to sometimes organize programs that were of world-class nature.”
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