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

Laurence J. Silberstein

Lehigh University

The first challenge that confronted me upon my arrival at Lehigh in 1984 was to establish a serious center for Jewish Studies in an environment that provided very limited resources. Connected to this challenge was a second and unexpected one, the continuing presence of two donors who did not believe in supporting programs from a distance. In the beginning, Phil and Muriel Berman's regular attendance at all center events and programs left some of my colleagues somewhat nervous, and I must admit to my own initial uncertainty. As it turned out, to paraphrase Mark Twain, this was one of the many problems that never happened. Phil and Muriel were exceptional benefactors who believed that academic matters, including speakers and programs, were best left to the judgment of the academicians. Although we had different perspectives on a number of issues, particularly concerning Israel, I cannot recall any instance in which they voiced criticism of a speaker or program along ideological lines.

A serious challenge was the need for additional faculty. The interdisciplinary character of our program and competing demands upon individual departments resulted in the loss of a number of courses offered by associated faculty over the years. Thanks to the generosity of the Bermans and other donors, we have succeeded in building a group of five full-time Jewish Studies faculty (four tenure track and one professor of practice), with three of the positions fully endowed.

To render a serious contribution of research and publications apart from the writings of our faculty, we initiated a regular series of academic conferences. We also entered into an agreement with a well-known academic press to publish all of the proceedings. In the years between conferences, we convened a series of informal colloquia which created space for colleagues from the United States and Israel to share their work in progress and experiment with new ideas. Unfortunately, the growing reluctance of academic presses to publish multiauthor volumes led to the cessation of our publishing series. Our final conference volume, published in 2001, only appeared as a result of a full subvention from a generous donor.

Finally, the overall anti-intellectual climate on campus along with students' reluctance to attend extracurricular lectures and programs presented another challenge. In response, we decided to link all of our lectures and programs to existing courses and require students to attend. Coupled with a core of interested faculty and members of the general community, we have managed to maintain strong attendance at our programs. As to the future, changes on university campuses are already creating new challenges that will require new and different solutions.