A Judaic studies major at PSU

Written by | March 5, 2012

An idea whose time has come

Rabbi Joshua Stampfer began teaching Jewish history and religion courses to a handful of students at Portland State in the dynamic era of the 1960s and maintained a significant presence at the university as an adjunct until 2001. Today, at the age of 90, he is on the verge of seeing the culmination of his years of commitment to the study of the Jewish culture, people and language, as PSU plans for a major development—literally.

Currently, PSU offers only an undergraduate minor in Judaic studies. Michael Weingrad, academic director of the Harold Schnitzer Family Program in Judaic studies at PSU, said a combination “of student demand, university support and successful fundraising” has led to the proposal for the development of a major. This idea is good, and it should be supported.

Weingrad sees this as an enrichment of PSU’s growth toward becoming a broader research university. “Judaic studies enhances our understanding of world history and allows critical insight into a vital strand in the tapestry of world culture,” he said.

The question is, are these simply the opinions of an academic director who is expected to promote his department, or is there enough demand for PSU to offer this major? Though not a question that can necessarily be answered monosyllabically, what seems to be speaking louder than words is, well, money.

But wait—before you think this is going to be a cynical tirade on the evils of capitalism (of which there are many, but that’s an argument for another day), it’s actually a good thing. Judaic studies has grown prolifically: it once encompassed only a few of the classes offered by the Middle East Studies Center and is now a proposed major. This is largely thanks to financial support from outside the university.

Weingrad explained that the program’s success has always been based on its private funding. Early on, in 2002, the Harold Schnitzer family offered a $1 million matching-challenge grant to establish the department at PSU. The grant was successfully matched, leading to the launch of a full-fledged Judaic studies field and allowing the hiring of the first full-time professor of Judaic studies.

Here’s where it gets interesting. After this initial grant, there came several more donations from both individuals and foundations, totaling over $2 million. This was critical to the program’s growth, and the best part about it was that it was non-university money.

This is not to suggest, however, that just because there is substantial private support for something, any program should offer a major degree. We’re not having an Oprah moment—“You get a major, and you get a major, and you get a major!”

The fact that the department has been so successful at fundraising is definitely a positive. It has provided the practical outworking of the program’s growth without a dependence on taxpayer dollars at a time of rising school tuition and budget cuts. But it does not answer the question of whether there is demand for this very specialized track of study, regardless of the money behind it.

Perhaps this will: According to the Harold Schnitzer Family Program, in 2002, Portland was the largest urban center on the West Coast without a university-level Judaic studies program.

Though often ignorantly reduced to mere religion and politics, the field of Judaic studies has been widely acknowledged in universities across the the world as critical to our understanding of modern society as a whole. The Jewish population makes up less than 1 percent of the world’s population, yet its contributions span an incredible spectrum, from science to medicine, philosophy to economics.

Einstein, Galileo, Freud, Salk, Epstein and Pulitzer are a handful of Jewish contributors whose names might ring a bell. In medicine alone, the Jewish contribution has been astounding, with numerous discoveries of diseases and cures.

Today, Israel, a country not even 65 years old, is on the cutting edge of stem cell research, which carries untold potential for the future treatment of currently incurable diseases.

The study of modernity cannot be separated from that of the incredibly significant Jewish culture. Wherever we look, in whatever sector of society we focus, invariably we will find its contributions. How could we not have a degree offered for the study of a culture and people who have had such a significant role in shaping the world and, quite frankly, our country?

Currently, there are more than 500 students taking classes within the Judaic studies program, and the number of those pursuing a minor has doubled over the last year, according to Weingrad. The University of Oregon offers a major in Judaic studies with a medieval bent, so the more modern focus of the PSU program will provide a key alternative for students.

Weingrad himself describes the great potential for the program attracting “greater numbers of Jewish students to PSU.” He sees the program as an opportunity to show students how great Portland is. “I hope they will stay and contribute to this community,” Weingrad said.

In October 2011, PSU awarded rabbi Joshua Stampfer an honorary degree, acknowledging decades of service to the university. And now, 50 years after he first started teaching here, it’s safe to assume that the opportunity for students at PSU to major in the field he tirelessly taught and promoted must bring a smile to his face.

Rightly so.

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