I am honored to serve as the eighteenth president of the Association for Jewish Studies.
At the annual meeting, in December, I spoke of three major goals for the years ahead: (1) to collect data on the state of Jewish Studies in North America; (2) to improve our financial condition through an endowment; and (3) to work with the Jewish Book Council to improve the state of scholarly publishing in our field. We have made progress on all three fronts since then. Since the first will require cooperation from all of our members, let me explain its significance.
As the professional organization in the field of Jewish Studies, we receive numerous inquiries concerning the state of the field and its future course. Some of them are easy to answer: as of this writing, for example, we have 1,950 individual members and 61 institutional members. We know of some 230 programs in Jewish Studies across North America. But when we are asked about what courses in Jewish Studies attract the most students, or what areas of the field are most popular, or where young scholars are being trained, or about current publishing trends, and especially when we are asked how many new and replacement positions in Jewish Studies can be expected in the years ahead, we have little hard data and need to speak more from anecdote. Those who contact us are invariably disappointed.
Back in 1966, Arnold J. Band, later the third president of AJS, published in the American Jewish Year Book an illuminating study of "Jewish Studies in American Liberal-Arts Colleges and Universities" (available online at www.ajcarchives.org/AJC_DATA/Files/1966_3_SpecialArticles.pdf). The study, based on an extensive questionnaire, listed all known departments offering Judaic Studies courses in some form or other as well as the field's full-time faculty. It showed an increase in Jewish Studies positions from twelve in 1945 to over sixty full-time positions in 1965, all of them held by men, and estimated that perhaps as many as ten thousand students were enrolled in Jewish Studies classes—almost all of them Jews. Looking ahead, Band concluded, albeit tentatively, that "we are on the threshold of a new and promising period in Jewish scholarship in America which merits careful attention and cautious, continual reassessment." His survey, which was extensively cited, actually helped to make that prophecy come true.
Almost twenty-five years later, in an article published in Sh'ma in 1989, Band looked back at the state of the field, and noted three critical changes: "the total of 60 positions . . . would have to be multiplied by about 10 today," "the obvious absence of women in 1966 has been happily rectified," and doubts concerning the field's future had dissipated. "Jewish Studies," he concluded, "are now firmly established and seen as part of the establishment."
Three years after that, in 1992, AJS published a full-scale catalogue, edited by Elizabeth Vernon, of Jewish Studies Courses at American and Canadian Universities (this is now a rare book; you can procure a copy at Amazon.com for $216). It found 104 endowed academic positions in the field, 410 institutions where Jewish Studies courses were taught (excluding those offered by seminaries), and over 4,000 courses being offered.
Since then, a full-scale history of Jewish Studies in the United States has appeared: Paul Ritterband and Harold S. Wechsler's Jewish Learning in American Universities: The First Century (1994). In addition, selected surveys of AJS members have periodically been conducted, most recently, "The 2008 Association for Jewish Studies Membership Survey," by Steven M. Cohen and Judith Veinstein for the Jewish Policy Archive (available at www.bjpa.org/Publications/downloadFile.cfm?FileID=5402), completed just before the economic downturn. Many critical questions nevertheless remain unanswered, particularly those pertaining to enrollments, future vacancies, the state of the field in the wake of the economic downturn, and the general shift away from the humanities. Almost half a century after Arnold Band's survey, we actually know a lot less about the field of Jewish Studies overall than we knew back in 1966.
To remedy this, AJS plans to conduct a comprehensive survey of our members in the late summer. The American Academy for Jewish Research has generously provided funds to help defray the costs of this survey and Steven M. Cohen has graciously agreed to conduct the survey on a pro bono basis. Deborah Dash Moore is chairing a committee that includes Judith Baskin, Harold Wechsler, Jack Wertheimer, Rona Sheramy, and myself to help plan, oversee, interpret, and disseminate the survey instrument. If all goes well, we will report our findings at the December annual meeting.
For our survey to succeed, all of our members will need to take time to fill it in. Ours will be as much a census as a survey: the goal is to produce a thorough portrait of Jewish Studies in North America, and a snapshot of Jewish Studies in Europe and Israel, where we also have a small but meaningful membership base. We want that portrait to be as complete and accurate as possible. To be sure, "survey fatigue" plagues many sectors of our community these days, and for understandable reasons. Nevertheless, we ask you to make the AJS survey a high priority. The results should redound to our collective benefit, revealing where the field of Jewish Studies stands, how far we have come, and what we need to do to move forward.
Many thanks in advance for your help!
Jonathan D. Sarna