The main subjects usually covered in "Introduction to Jewish Studies" courses are Jewish history, beliefs, and practices. That is a huge amount and each instructor develops her or his own style. I am a historian so I begin with history, which I think is necessary to understand the development of beliefs and practices. History also encompasses topics in which some students have particular interest: the Bible; the relationship of Judaism to Christianity; the Holocaust; the State of Israel; and contemporary Jewry.
There is usually a core textbook to which other readings—primary and secondary— are attached. After trying a number of these I now use Nicholas de Lange's excellent Introduction to Judaism. It is readable, it covers the topics I want to discuss, and it avoids most of the denominational slant that colors many introductory works. Instructors often use Barry Holtz's standard Back to the Sources. I have not found a text reader that really works for me so I cobble sources together from various places. Many of them are now available free on the internet.
One problem I have found teaching the introduction is the varying levels of student knowledge, from the day-school slackers to people who never met a Jew before arriving at Ohio State. A few years ago I was doing my standard "all of Jewish history in forty minutes" schtick (with jokes, of course). I had just hit minute four—Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—and I thought I was doing great, when a student in the second row put up her hand. "I have no idea what you are talking about," she said. "I don't know anything about these people and I have no idea what you're saying." She was applauded. I had to rethink the assumptions I could make about student knowledge. This is tricky and I have no clear solution.
Maintaining a Research Program
I have a lot of material that I want to read and projects I want to carry out, but I do not have time. The job of director involves handling a constant influx of communications about various matters. It also requires planning programs, raising money, keeping various parties informed about our work, meeting with students, and other administrative activities. A director must constantly weigh how much time and energy to invest in innovative and exciting new programs, and how much of this time and energy he or she should hold back to invest in research and writing. While administration has its rewards, I often feel as if I have changed professions.
Balancing Academic Method with Issues of Jewish Identity
I recognize in myself, many faculty members, and most donors a passion for Jewish Studies that is based largely in Jewish identity values. Many academics in this field entered it at least partly because of these feelings. Most donors who give to Jewish Studies—and even more to Israel Studies—are motivated by identity. How do we maintain an academic approach without losing this passion? How do we explain to donors that many students winning the awards and fellowships they have donated to us are non-Jews? How do we raise money without compromising our mandate?
Creating an Appropriate Niche
Each director must struggle with the question of needs and niche. The Ohio State University is the largest university in the United States. Our Melton Center for Jewish Studies was the first such center at an American public university. We currently boast thirty-two faculty members from a dozen different departments. Despite all this, I had to be realistic about Ohio State's niche in the world of Jewish Studies when I took on the directorship. Columbus is not a high-draw city for hip, young students. Other schools have more star power among their faculty, more dollars for recruiting undergraduates, and better networks of support. While we actively work on improving these areas, I needed a strategy for making Ohio State special. We have concentrated on specialized academic conferences, which have become less common in recent years, and community programs, in which we have excelled.