What are the three biggest challenges you face as director of a Jewish Studies program?

Jack Kugelmass

University of Florida


Most faculty in Jewish Studies are organized as programs or centers rather than departments. In theory, the advantage to having faculty distributed throughout a college or colleges, is to maximize impact and prevent insularity. This makes sense, since I believe that Jewish Studies is not designed to make Jews more Jewish but to make non-Jews less non-Jewish. (I would make the same argument for all ethnic and gender studies.) Distributing faculty through joint appointments, however, creates dual loyalties, not to mention extra service obligations, and, often enough, the primary loyalty and responsibility rests with the tenure home. Furthermore, the need to find suitable tenure homes sometimes prevents programs from hiring according to their own needs. Departments sometimes balk at accepting new lines believing that doing so would come at the expense of their own priorities. The critical role played by departments in hiring and job satisfaction also means that retaining faculty depends very much on the strength of the tenure home. At first-tier institutions, retention and job satisfaction may not be much of a problem but just a bit down the rung, it is. A strong program cannot offset weak departments.


Programs typically come about through happenstance. How does one create a program in which fundamentals of religion, history, and language are covered? And what are those fundamentals? What aspect(s) of Judaism? Where? When? And what period(s) in history? In regard to language, most programs privilege Hebrew over Yiddish, but I sometimes suspect the latter might have more success in attracting students whose afternoon school experience with the Hebrew language still makes them shudder. And then there's the fact that hiring priorities nowadays are set as much by donors' passion as they are by program needs.


There is an increasing need to justify new or replacement lines in accordance with newly emerging critical areas, some of which are determined through centers of excellence within otherwise uneven institutions. For instance, peace studies or creative writing are two areas that come to mind, as well as areas that could be defined regionally such as Latin America for border states, arid and ecological studies in the Southwest. Still other areas may be defined nationally in terms of critical languages and areas of strategic interest. Hebrew has some relevance here, but what is the future of Yiddish in higher education when German and Slavic Studies are almost everywhere in decline and Mandarin and Arabic are in ascendance?

But all this sounds much too negative. The fact is that the most difficult challenge one faces as director of a center of Jewish Studies is pretty much what every administrator now faces: a decline in state revenues, increasing stress on career and outcome, and insufficient funding for higher education to properly support research and libraries as well as a broad curriculum that cannot be justified in practical terms. Fortunately, we have a continuing partnership with the community which sees its own future very much tied with the wellbeing of our programs. For that reason alone, I wouldn't exchange my directorship for chairing any other unit in the college.