Finding Meaning in Jewish Studies at College

Rabbi Lauren Kurland (RS ’05, DS ’05)

At institutions of higher learning around the country, enrollment in the humanities is down, in some disciplines precipitously; Jewish studies has not been spared from this trend. Under the direction of Chair Noam Pianko, the Stroum Center for Jewish Studies at the University of Washington (UW) sought to address declining enrollment by creating a new staff position: director of Student Engagement, a position that I am honored to hold. 

In this role, I meet with students coming from different backgrounds and heading toward different futures to learn about their experience with Jewish studies. Some of the students I meet are committed Jewish studies majors or minors-students who came to college interested in learning more about Jewish history, culture and thought. Others are taking their first-and possibly only-Jewish studies course because they heard something good about the professor, because it fulfills a general education requirement, or because it falls at a convenient time in their schedule. Over coffee or a walk around campus, I learn about these students’ backgrounds, why they enrolled in a Jewish studies course, what they have found inspiring about the course they are taking, and where we could do better.

In other words, I have the privilege of asking students where they find meaning in their academic pursuits and discovering where Jewish studies can be present in supporting or providing that meaning.

The students I interact with are not all Jewish. Approximately 900 students enroll in Jewish studies courses at UW per year, and while data about the percentage of those students who are Jewish is not available (nor significant to the Stroum Center’s mission and work), it is notable that half of our majors in 2015 were not Jewish, and one of the two co-chairs of our Jewish Studies Student Committee is not Jewish. Moreover, the conversations I have with both Jewish and non-Jewish students are not all that different, reflecting that regardless of one’s religious background, emerging adults are searching for meaning, identity, and connection.

It is also worth noting that while there are certainly many students-Jewish and non-Jewish-who take advantage of the many resources that the thriving and pluralistic UW Hillel provides, many students are attracted to Jewish studies precisely because it is not Hillel. These students deliberately look toward academia as the place to nurture personal meaning-making because in the classroom, there is no requirement-perceived or otherwise-for any student to have a certain type of pre-existing personal familiarity with Judaism. There is no ritual practice, no expectation of a certain heritage, no requirement to eat, dress, or commemorate time in certain ways. In the classroom, students must think critically, even about things they thought they already understood. In the Jewish studies classroom, there are therefore no outsiders or insiders; each individual has equal right and value in the conversation.

That said, not every one of the thousand students who takes a Jewish studies course finds it meaningful. Meaning is personal; meaning is found where the self connects. That place can be mysterious, unpredictable, and serendipitous-hence while some of us are passionate about applied physics, others can’t get enough of architecture and still others are fascinated by 15th-century English history. Yet in that place of meaning, wherever it is found, something inside the learner is stirred and inspired; something inside the learner hums and craves to learn more, to engage more, to hang on to every word. On the college campus, this is manifest in the decisions students make as newly independent adults: they never skip class, they attend the professor’s office hours, they do the optional reading, they write a compelling final paper.

Yet, while where we find meaning can be as varied and unique as each individual, there are some common patterns in students’ reports about what makes a particular course or topic meaningful. Relationships-with the topic, with the professor, and with other students-are key and commonly expressed factors in a student’s sense of a course’s personal meaning. Thus, meaning is often found in a college classroom when the following elements exist:

  • A student connects with a topic, even if (or sometimes especially when!) they didn’t think they would, often (although not always) because of one’s identity or family history.
  • The material and the way in which it is presented compels students to question previously held assumptions about what they think they know or who they think they are;
  • The professor is passionate about (not just an expert in) the topic they teach, and even more so if the professor shares with the students why he or she feels passionately about the topic.
  • The professor learns and uses students’ names (even in large classes), and finds a way to connect with each student personally. If a student is upset or absent frequently, the professor notices and checks in with the student in a nonjudgmental way.
  • The professor gives students opportunities to interact with and get to know other students in the class (e.g., through small group discussion, jigsaw activities, or havruta study.

Two composite examples of students who have taken Jewish studies courses that illustrate these observations:

  • Simone, a sophomore biology major who grew up in an observant Jewish home in a wealthy suburb of Seattle and went to day school K-12, confessed that she enrolled in Introduction to Jewish Cultural History at UW because she thought it would be an easy class to fulfill her general education requirements. Simone said she figured she knew everything about Jewish history already and would “basically be able to teach the class myself.” However, to her surprise, by the end of the first lecture she realized that the history she had studied in day school was nothing like what she was learning about in her Jewish studies class. While at first she was disappointed with her elementary Jewish education, asking “Why did my parents spend all that money if I never really learned Jewish history at all?” her growing passion for the course eclipsed that disappointment. She described herself as being in “awe,” saying that she “didn’t speak basically the whole quarter because she was soaking it all in.” In particular, a lecture in which the professor cried while talking about a particularly harrowing story related to the Holocaust moved her. The professor’s ability to be vulnerable while teaching-belying the stereotype of the cold, dispassionate college professor-connected deeply with Simone. Learning about Jewish history as an emerging adult from a professor who taught with nuance and integrity and showed human emotions hooked her. She found the class inspiring and deeply meaningful, eventually writing a paper on her own family’s immigrant experience in which she interviewed her grandmother about emigrating from Iraq and opened up previously undisclosed chapters of her family’s history. Now she describes herself as a Jewish studies “groupie” who will likely declare a Jewish Studies minor and has begun to attend Stroum Center for Jewish Studies events as a way to connect further with the community.
  • Joanna, a nursing student from Seattle, took Introduction to Judaism to learn more about Judaism and to complete her graduation requirements. She was surprised to find out how much she “could learn about [her]self and about the community” through the topic; the integration of traditional havruta study in the course, rather than just frontal lecture, was transformative for her. She reflected that “having conversations with my neighbors about the texts and how we related to them” was a very powerful experience. As they studied, the professor roamed around the classroom, answering questions, encouraging students to think about the material in new ways and getting to know them better. Joanna indicated that, “as academics, we are raised to be in competition with each other . . . those groups really broke those walls down.” For Joanna, Introduction to Judaism was “far more than the description written in the course catalog.” Although graduating this year and unlikely to take another formal Jewish Studies course at UW in the future, the personal connection that Joanna felt to the material by dint of her being able to engage with it personally and in conversation with other students made a lasting impression and was incredibly meaningful to her.

Emerging adulthood is an especially exciting time in the world of meaning-making. Students come to college with permission to explore, to try on new identities, to make decisions, and to make mistakes. In this environment of experimentation and searching, Jewish studies offers a remarkable opportunity for students to consider universal questions through the lens of the Jewish experience. They are encouraged by faculty-often the adults who interact with them at the most intense level for four or more years-to question their assumptions and to find different ways among myriad to connect to the culture that surrounds them, as, indeed, Jews themselves have done for millennia.

Remaining Questions

As I continue to meet students and learn about their experiences, many questions still remain. Among them:

  • Many students who take Jewish studies courses find them meaningful. Many more do not, at least as evidenced by the relatively low number of students who take multiple Jewish studies courses in sequence. How can we change the style, structure or content of Jewish studies courses to help more students connect? One way to tackle this might be to allow more autonomy to students in developing a “so what?” final project. One UW Jewish Studies professor, for example, allows each student to write their final paper on something related to Jewish culture that speaks to them personally. This has resulted in papers as diverse as “Jews in Egypt,” “A History of the Bagel,” and “Jews and The Simpsons.” The professor reflects that the papers are generally better written because they answer a question that the student proposed-one that was meaningful to that student and that allowed the student to apply knowledge and critical thinking-rather than one that the professor assigned that required only regurgitation of facts.
  • In an academic setting, faculty, in their desire to be a neutral party, can inadvertently be cast as dispassionate or aloof. Yet students repeatedly indicate that when a professor “notices” students, it makes a huge difference in how they personally experience the class and therefore in how much meaning they ascribe it. Thus, how can we train college professors (and, even earlier in the process, graduate students) to consider being more present in students’ lives without being overbearing or invasive? How vulnerable should professors be and how can they connect with students in real ways, aware of necessary academic boundaries?
  • How do we help students who are looking for meaning find their way into Jewish studies courses? Though Jewish studies courses are open to all and have no prerequisites, is there something about the word “Jewish” that automatically alienates a broad section of potential students and stymies enrollment? Indeed, this question might be asked about queer studies, Chicano studies, and disability studies as well; do students think they need to be of a group to take a course about a group? If so, how do we push students to think more critically about why they take the courses that they take (beyond having a diversity requirement in the curriculum, which UW has), so that they take advantage of the opportunity in college to take courses about different cultures and from different perspectives?

Takeaways for Jewish Educators

Although half of the students I meet with are not Jewish, there are some practical implications for Jewish educators based on my observations:

  • Many Jewish students have indicated disappointment that their Hebrew or day school did not offer the broader perspective that Jewish studies courses in college provide. How might Hebrew and day schools broaden the cultural and historical perspective of their courses so that this rude awakening does not happen so often in college? Additionally, how might middle and high schools partner with Jewish studies professors or graduate students to expose younger learners to the richness of Jewish studies in college (such as Makor of Hebrew College in Boston, which is already experimenting with such a model)?
  • The same factors that inspire meaning-making in college students also inspire younger learners. To that end, how can we find, train and hire elementary and secondary school teachers who are not only pedagogically qualified but also genuinely passionate about what they teach; encourage younger students to question their assumptions about who they are and what they know; create intentional and authentic connections between students in the classroom; and grant students autonomy over their learning?

Lauren Kurland serves as the director of student engagement at the Stroum Center for Jewish Studies at the University of Washington (UW). In this position, she works with students and faculty to create more meaningful relationships and helps develop further opportunities for the interdisciplinary study of Judaism at UW. She has also written curriculum for The Davidson School’s Etgar Yesodi. Rabbi Kurland received a BA in Education and Social Policy from Northwestern University, an MA in Jewish Education from the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education (DS ’05), and rabbinic ordination from The Jewish Theological Seminary (RS ’05).