Building Coherence within the Program
By its very nature, Penn's interdisciplinary Jewish Studies program brings together faculty, undergraduates, and graduate students with diverse interests and specialties. While we regard diversity as one of the vital strengths of our program, it also presents a series of challenges. On an administrative level, crafting the Jewish Studies curriculum requires balancing our program's needs with the teaching commitments of faculty members to their home departments. Moreover, faculty often prioritize service to their own departments. In intellectual terms, we must find ways to bring together students and faculty working in disparate fields, encouraging dialogue across disciplines. Through faculty works-in-progress seminars, a graduate student colloquium in Jewish Studies, and regular presentations of undergraduate research, we endeavor to strengthen the sense of cohesion within our program and create a genuine intellectual community.
Penn also houses the Katz Center for Advanced Judaic Studies. While the Katz Center and the Jewish Studies program work together to create a community for Jewish Studies at Penn, they are separate institutions, with distinct missions, though students, faculty, and the wider community do not always grasp the distinctions between the two. Communication and coordination between the directors of the center and the program are essential to creating a successful intellectual community for Jewish Studies at Penn.
Overcoming Student Misperceptions
Students arrive at Penn with a range of misconceptions about the nature and purpose of Jewish Studies in a university. Some students mistakenly believe that Jewish Studies courses represent simply a continuation of the (often) unsatisfying experience that they left behind in Hebrew or Sunday school. Other students, many of them graduates of day schools or yeshivot, sometimes suspect that Jewish Studies courses on the university level invoke heretical approaches or are taught by professors hostile to Judaism, thus potentially undermining traditional beliefs and practices. Some non-Jewish students worry that they might not be sufficiently knowledgeable or might be regarded as outsiders when they enroll in Jewish Studies courses. While these misconceptions are by no means universal, they do affect at least a portion of students who might otherwise consider exploring Jewish Studies during their college careers.
Fostering an Intellectual Culture for Jewish Studies on Campus
Like most Jewish Studies programs, Penn regularly sponsors an array of lectures, programs, and conferences. We consider such events part of our mandate for creating a culture of engagement with Jewish subjects outside of the classroom. At times, we struggle to attract students to these events without requiring them for our courses, as we compete with Hillel and a range of other student programs. At the same time, we almost always welcome members of the larger community to attend these events, believing that our academic mission includes the broader public. Still, a delicate balancing act is often required to engage student needs and serve community interests at the same time.