Campus News

Jewish Studies Program Experiences Renewal

August 26, 2019

Hillary Hempstead

exterior of Rice Hall.
Rice Hall, home to Oberlin's Jewish Studies Program.
Photo credit: Larry Kasperek

Oberlin’s Jewish Studies Program recognizes that Jewish history, culture, religious tradition, and literature is embedded in the larger world. It’s integral for understanding the history of Europe, the United States, and other parts of the globe, says Ellen Wurtzel, associate professor of history and chair of the Jewish Studies Program from January 2018 to July 2019.

This year, through a reimagination of programming and reallocation of resources, the program is experiencing a renewal. The changes will provide students with more opportunities to immerse themselves in the program.

“We’re at a really exciting time with new faculty, new ideas for programming, and a shared language program in Hebrew with Ohio State University,” says Wurtzel. “If you’re a student interested in learning about Jewish culture, history, tradition, and language, you can do it all through the Jewish Studies Program.”

Additions this academic year include two tenure-track professors: Shari Rabin, assistant professor of Jewish studies and religion, and Sheera Talpaz, assistant professor of comparative literature and Jewish studies. Matthew Berkman will also join the program as a visiting assistant professor of Jewish studies, and Professor of Religion Cynthia Chapman will serve as the program’s new chair.

According to Laura Herron, assistant professor of Jewish studies, the program attracts a diverse group of students interested in religion, politics, history, literature, and cultural studies. Because most courses also count toward the cultural diversity requirement, students are able to enrich an existing area of study by either expanding its context or honing in on a specialization.

“It’s not just students in the humanities and social sciences who take our courses. Last year, we had a biology major complete a minor in Jewish studies because the issue of migration resonated. We also have conservatory students who want to explore topics like Jewish musical traditions,” says Herron.

Students who earn a major or minor in Jewish studies go on to a variety of careers. Some pursue a career in an academic or professional field, while others go on to graduate school, the education field, or work for charitable foundations.

However, some students find even deeper inspiration in the program. Emily Volz ’19 entered Oberlin thinking she would be on a pre-med track and then later go on to become an oncologist. After reevaluating her interest in that field, she dabbled in geology. “But that fell apart pretty quickly,” says Volz.

After doing a summer program in Israel, Volz found the experiences she had pushed her in the direction of Jewish studies. She “found inspiration through a visiting professor of Jewish studies,” and she took four classes with that professor. The overall experience eventually led Volz to attend rabbinical school.

Classes offered in the program this academic year include Introduction to Jewish Studies: Sacred Spaces and Promised Lands; New Testament Christian Origins; and Orientalism and the Jewish Question. Herron encourages all students to give Jewish studies at try. “I invite students who have perhaps never considered taking a Jewish studies course to take one this year. There’s room for everyone at the table.”


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