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It’s official: Students can now major in Jewish studies at KU

One of the popular classes for Jewish studies students at the University of Kansas is Intermediate Hebrew I.

Students at the University of Kansas can now officially earn a Bachelor of Arts degree in Jewish studies. The decision was finalized last month. Professor John Younger, director of KU’s Jewish studies program, said this week that four students have officially declared a Jewish studies major and a fifth may declare shortly.

“We have been given the total green light,” said Dr. Younger. {mprestriction ids="1,3"}“Our first student signed up for the major within five minutes of announcing to our students that we could have students declare the major.”

Dr. Younger expects two people to graduate with a major in Jewish studies soon, even as early as December. One of those students had already received permission to declare Jewish studies as a special major. Molly Rissien became the first student to graduate with a special major in Jewish studies in May 2015. The Jewish student population at KU is estimated to be more than 1,500 students and Jewish studies has been offered as a minor at the university since 2005. Two other universities in the Big 12 offer Jewish studies programs, Texas and Oklahoma. Colorado is another school in the region with a Jewish studies program. Neither the University of Missouri nor the University of Missouri-Kansas City have such a program, although UMKC used to offer one.

KU Hillel Executive Director Jay Lewis said formalizing a Jewish studies major is a “huge step” for KU.

“It is phenomenal in a practical sense for students to be able to dive deeply into Jewish studies, but it means so much on a symbolic level as well. Having Jewish studies as a major makes a bold statement about KU as a destination school for Jewish students,” said Lewis as KU Hillel prepares to bring 550 KU students, alumni and parents together for its annual Rock Chalk Shabbat event to be held tomorrow, Oct. 23, in the Kansas Union. (For more information, see Page 11.)

Dr. Younger, who is not Jewish, has guided the process of formalizing a Jewish studies major since he began running the department in January 2013. The proposal was submitted in April 2014, and it only took about a year and a half — which Dr. Younger said is considered really fast — to get it through all the necessary committees.

Dr. Younger said the faculty is all ecstatic about this news. 

“Working for the faculty of the Jewish studies program has been a real joy,” he said. “It’s a fabulous faculty to work with and that’s one reason why this went through so fast. It was real easy for us to do.”

Dr. Younger said requirements for a Jewish studies degree include:

• Two courses in Jewish history and/or culture

• Two courses in Judaism

• Completion  of  intermediate level Hebrew

• Three electives

In addition Dr. Younger said a capstone course, one that “pulls everything all together,” is also required.

Becca Levine, a KU senior from St. Louis who plans to graduate in May 2016, is excited about the official Jewish studies major.

“It means that KU will become more competitive with schools such as Indiana, Ohio State and other schools with large Jewish populations who already are succeeding with their Jewish studies programs,” Levine said.

Mackenzie Haun, a sophomore from Overland Park who became a Bat Mitzvah at Congregation Beth Torah and served as president of its youth group, thinks an official Jewish studies major will attract more Jewish students to KU.

“It makes it obvious that there is a strong Jewish community here that is recognized by the university. The Jewish community is a big part of why I chose KU. I knew KU Hillel was very strong and it is very important to me to live somewhere with a Jewish community. Being Jewish is a big part of my identity, and KU is helping me make that identity even stronger,” said Haun, who would like to work with teens either in formal or informal Jewish education after she graduates.

Levine also thinks the formalized program will help attract more students who hope to be Jewish professionals to KU, who will “hopefully stay and build both the Lawrence and Kansas City Jewish communities.”

“My Jewish identity has had an opportunity to grow and prosper over the past four years thanks to the Jewish studies department and KU Hillel. I did have to choose religious studies to come to KU because there was not a Jewish studies major at the time, but I will now be adding Jewish studies as a second major. It turned out to be a great path for me because I have been able to see the intersectionality between Judaism and other religions through my studies,” continued Levine, who may pursue opportunities with Hillel, NFTY or a federation and then proceed to study for the rabbinate. 

Now that Jewish studies has become an official major, Dr. Younger has more work to do as the department chair. One of his main objectives will be to recruit faculty specifically for Jewish studies. Up until now faculty who teach Jewish studies content courses are housed in other departments, such as religious studies or languages.

“We don’t have a professor in Jewish studies in our program. We have a visiting assistant professor who has been with us for three years and I’m going to try to get him on tenure- track. He teaches an ancient Israel archaeology course. We have lecturers, such as Rabbi Neal Schuster, but we don’t actually have a designated faculty in Jewish studies yet,” Younger said.

The Jewish studies department will also need to keep track of alumni and begin raising money.

“We now have an academic program where we can say we are graduating real people who need to go on and do real things in this field and go to Jewish studies graduate school. We need the money to send them, we need the money to get faculty to train them better,” he said.

Dr. Younger would also eventually like to start a graduate Jewish studies program at KU.

“First I’d like to start a graduate certificate. I think that will be pretty easy. To start an M.A. program we will need to have faculty in our program,” he said.

Additional programming is in the department’s future as well.

“It would be nice to have a lecture series and do something other than Israeli films and pizza. We’d like to do something a little bit more content oriented.”

Earlier this month the department hosted the 27th annual conference of the Midwest Jewish Studies Association. Participants came all the way from Austria, Belgium and Jerusalem as well as communities closer to home such as Missouri State, University of South Alabama and University of Virginia.

“That is also going to put us on the map,” Dr. Younger said.{/mprestriction}