A Mensch's Guide to Campus Activism


Study Judaism in the classroom, live it in the real world

 Adam Palmer 
By Adam Palmer

If it’s been years since your last day of Hebrew school and you’d like to brush up on your Jewish knowledge, college is the perfect place. Universities across the country—including virtually every major university in Illinois--have Jewish Studies departments, and many even offer major degrees in the subject.

Recent University of Michigan graduate Dina Pittel decided to major in Jewish Studies after she took a class during the second semester of her freshman year.

Pittel, who was raised in an Orthodox environment, said the class took a non-traditional, academic approach to rabbinic texts that did not always agree with what she had learned in Jewish day school. For example, a traditional perspective would say that rabbinic texts come from what Moses learned at Mt. Sinai, but an academic view would disagree.

“I see them interplaying together,” Pittel said of the academic and religious spheres of Judaism. “If I learn something in the academic that might come into conflict with what I believe, I try to work them out.”

Her degree is serving her well. Pittel is working as a teacher and in the admissions office at the Jean and Samuel Frankel Jewish Academy of Metropolitan Detroit.

Students in a Jewish studies class learn about Jerusalem by going there.

Aaron Weininger, who just graduated from Washington University in St. Louis (Wash U.), wanted to study Judaism in the classroom as soon as he got to school.

“As a Jew going into college, I really wanted to find out different ways to explore my Jewish commitments, and I felt that one way was pursuing a degree in Jewish Studies,” Weininger said.

In addition to his Jewish Studies major, Weininger majored in anthropology. As an anthropologist, he studied the different techniques that are used to learn about how a nation has developed. This knowledge, along with his Jewish Studies degree, helped him understand the development of Judaism over the history of the Jewish people.

“It’s very valuable to take Jewish studies courses in tandem with courses in other fields,” Weininger suggested.

Dr. Pamela Barmash, director of Jewish, Islamic and Near-Eastern Studies at Wash U., sees Jewish Studies classes as being naturally inter-disciplinary.

“Our courses offer a way of giving a new perspective and opening students’ eyes to the unexpected and the profound, whether in Jewish history, literature, culture, or politics,” she said.

Dr. Barmash also teaches in the department. This past semester, Weininger took one of her seminars, “Jerusalem.” Students explored the history and conflicts surrounding the city, and then spent two weeks there to experience what they had learned. It was Weininger’s favorite Jewish Studies class, he said.

Weininger will begin rabbinical school at the Jewish Theological Seminary this fall. He said studying Judaism in the classroom added to the way he thinks about religion.

“It has deepened my knowledge of Judaism in that I really understand a more holistic picture of what Judaism is all about,” Weininger said. “It’s deepened my commitment to learning and to always finding opportunities to enhance my learning.”

Posted: 10/22/2007 09:07:57 AM

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