Jaime Grinberg, codirector of the new minor, said he is optimistic about change on the Montclair campus in terms of cultural and intellectual life.
October 23, 2008
This winter, Montclair State University will launch a minor in Jewish-American studies.
The move marks the culmination of four years of increasing activity among Jewish students and faculty at New Jersey’s second-largest university.
It also comes on the heels of two other changes: the Jewish student organization has been rechartered and is now affiliating with the national Hillel movement, while the Department of Modern Languages and Literature has been offering Hebrew language classes since the autumn of 2007.
Of the school’s nearly 17,000 students, an estimated 640 are Jewish, according to a 2006 survey conducted by the university.
The new minor will focus on the American-Jewish experience. It will include three required classes in Jewish thought and American-Jewish studies, as well as nine credits from across a variety of disciplines, including anthropology, history, Hebrew language, and women’s studies.
The first class in the minor, Introduction to American Jewish Studies, will offer “an exploration of the cultural, social, political, religious, and artistic dimension of Jewish life in America, particularly the northeast and New Jersey,” said Jaime Grinberg, who will serve as codirector of the new minor together with Michael Kogan, professor of philosophy and religion.
Grinberg is professor of educational foundations and served as adviser to Hillel for the last four years. He stepped down from that position to focus on the minor; Dr. David Sanders, associate professor in the Department of Broadcasting at MSU, has replaced him at Hillel.
The move to offer the minor was welcomed by faculty who were galvanized to seek the changes by events four years ago. In October 2004, swastikas and racist graffiti were discovered in a dormitory. That same academic year, Wheels of Justice, an organization with an anti-Israel message, came to campus. Students and faculty got together in the wake of those events to address an environment on campus they termed “hostile” to Israel and to Jews.
Hillel began holding events more frequently. Faculty members met more often and drafted a set of principles for the university.
Etzion Neuer, NJ regional director for the Anti-Defamation League, met with faculty and administrators.
“Some of us decided that a positive response to the general anti-Semitic climate on American campuses and to the particular context of Montclair State was to develop and establish an academic program in Jewish studies and to support a stronger Hillel,” Grinberg said a year ago, when the Hebrew language classes began.
This week, he reflected on the “enormous” shift on campus since the events of four years ago. He rattled off a variety of projects, including faculty members and students traveling to Israel, a growing Hillel, and joint projects with Israeli university faculty and students that reflect a growing embrace of Jewish life on the Montclair campus.
With regard to attitudes about Israel, things have changed as well.
While “there are always some voices that try to bring back to the center the discussion of Israel and the Palestinians as though it were a crucial aspect of political and social life in America,” said Grinberg, fewer and fewer people “are engaging in those discussions and debates about the legitimacy of Israel as a state. I don’t think the majority of faculty and staff — nor students — are anti-Israel. On the contrary, there is a supportive climate now for cultural diversity and understanding the Jewish-American experience and the importance of Israel in that experience.”
Grinberg credited the university for regularly sending out e-mail messages during the High Holy Day season reminding faculty members to excuse students from classes and reschedule any quizzes or tests slated for certain dates.
Grinberg also pointed to the task force created by the university to address bias incidents as having a powerful impact. “When you have a climate on campus that will not tolerate any form of racism or discrimination, that climate becomes inclusive of Jewish people and the Jewish experience,” he said. “There’s a much better power of response.”
He said he expects the new minor to continue to affect the tone on campus. “I’m very optimistic about how things will change for the better on campus in terms of cultural and intellectual life.”
Promotion and recruitment for the new minor begins next week, but three or four students have already expressed interest, he said.
Meanwhile, Beginners I Hebrew classes continue full to capacity; Beginners II and intermediate classes in Hebrew will be offered this spring, according to Dr. Elizabeth Emery, acting chair of the Department of Modern Languages and Literature.
Those involved in creating the American-Jewish studies minor are not finished, according to Grinberg.
“Three, four, and five years ago, the dream was to bring Jewish studies to campus. Now, our dream is Israel studies. It will be a more difficult political battle, but from the scholarly perspective, it makes sense.”
To mark the initiation of the minor, the university will hold a program on Thursday, Oct. 30, at 8 p.m. Grinberg will discuss aspects of the course of studies, and Kogan will offer a taste of the new discipline as he addresses the topic “America, 1776/France, 1789: Two Revolutions Confront the Jews.”
The event is free and open to the public. For more information, contact Kogan at 973-655-7933 or Grinberg at firstname.lastname@example.org or 973-655-4427.