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The case for enrolling in Jewish studies

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I was born and raised in a country where the combination of words “Jewish” and “studies” often provoked confusion, laughter or both. Most people did not consider studying the lives, culture and history of the Jewish People worthy of academic investigation. For years, I did not tell my former neighbours and casual acquaintances in Russia what I do, as trying to explain to them the profession of teaching Yiddish or Jewish history was awkward at best.

Now I work as the director of the University of Toronto’s Centre for Jewish Studies. Here, no one I know laughs when I say “Jewish studies.” Our centre has a beautiful office. The entrance proudly welcomes visitors with the large sign, featuring the word “Jewish” on it. I go through these doors daily and every day, I cannot help but get a little tickle from this sign. On some level, it still surprises me how many students of all backgrounds are interested in Jewish studies: Jewish ethics, law, tradition, history, culture, languages – all of which are disciplines that we teach and research.

Jewish studies has been taught at the University of Toronto, in one form or another, since the 19th century, and it has truly flourished over the past 20 years, with the generous support of the Toronto Jewish community. Very few universities in the world host six endowed professorial positions in Jewish studies like we do, and have such generous endowments supporting our graduate and undergraduate students. We routinely bring visiting scholars from Israel and host over 30 public events per year.

Our students are as diverse as the city itself – it is not unusual to fill the classroom with learners born in China, Pakistan, Mexico, Europe, South America and Africa. We try not to schedule important tests on the Chinese New Year, or talk about food too much during Ramadan. My colleagues and I often discuss challenges and opportunities that come with such diverse student bodies. In many ways, teaching non-Jews forces us to rethink our disciplines and approaches, which makes our work (already the best job in the world) even more exciting.

At the same time, I cannot help but notice that every year, we get fewer and fewer Jewish students in our classrooms. We used to be frequented by graduates of Jewish day schools, numerous Jewish Sunday schools, as well as young men and women that identify themselves as Canadian Jews. But now, these groups constitute less than 20 per cent of our student body. Occasionally, a Russian speaker reveals himself or herself as coming from a Jewish family, or, sometimes, an Israeli background surfaces. But this, too, happens less and less frequently.

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Why is that? Some of it can be explained by a dramatic decrease in enrolment in the humanities and social sciences worldwide. Students everywhere now tend to choose business or technical majors for their undergraduate education. Second, Jewish day school graduates often think that they had “enough” Jewish studies in high school and want to do other things at university. And of course, there is a big, third reason: Jewish students are now much less likely to study in Toronto, at U of T or York, compared to 20 years ago, in part because of a perceived fear of anti-Semitism and anti-Israel sentiments.

Our campuses have a terrible reputation among some Jewish parents – they imagine them as cesspools of boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) supporters, radical activism and popular anti-Semitism. Stories of professors criticizing Israel, or giving poor grades to students who defend Israel in their papers, float in discussions at school parking lots and higher education fairs. I cannot blame parents for their concerns. Incidents of anti-Semitic behaviour, no matter how rare, are extremely disturbing. But they have to know that U of T is ultimately safe and beneficial for Jewish students.

The danger of this negative perception of U of T, or the anxiety about it, is that it can possibly divert smart, talented Jewish students away from the best university in Canada. It is a loss for us Jewish studies professors and it is a loss for the Jewish community. There is absolutely no reason to stay away from U of T, York, McGill and other universities in Canada that offer world-class training in Jewish studies. Our students are safe, they are challenged and they become global leaders.

Yes, some classrooms engage students in controversial debates. Some of these debates involve Israel. Most Jewish studies classes, however, do not deal with Israel at all. I myself teach Yiddish and Russian Jewish culture and rarely address any contemporary political subjects. Contrary to popular perceptions, professors are not allowed to bring politics into their classrooms – everything that we teach has to involve close reading and analysis. Taking courses on subjects such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, modern Jewish history or literature can teach students divergent points of view, which might challenge or strengthen their own. It would teach them how to debate with those who might disagree with them, rather than always talking to people who are on the same page. Engaging in educated discourse makes us stronger as Jews and supporters of Israel.

‘They said they wanted to do this to stress that fascism was “better” than communism’

Modern educators and philanthropists worked hard for the inclusion of Jewish studies into university curricula in Canada over the past 150 years. They saw Jews and non-Jews learning together about the Jewish civilization, as a key factor in promoting cross-cultural dialogue and understanding. Jews should be benefiting from the field of Jewish studies, not avoiding it.

I cannot help but go back to thinking about my own youth. When I went to university in Russia, I did not hear the word “Jew,” not a single time – not while studying the Middle East, not while studying Russian history, not even in courses about the Second World War. One day, a group of my classmates came to a class on modern European history dressed in brown Nazi uniforms. They said they wanted to do this to stress that fascism was “better” than communism.

My friend and I confronted them and said that this ideology killed millions of Jews. Their response was, “why care about a small minority,” when the greater good is in question? I lacked the education back then to respond to them properly.

In some ways, engaging in Jewish studies as a career was my way of ensuring that no Jewish student lacks arguments against bigotry again. I do not want the Canadian Jewish youth to miss out on opportunities to study their history, culture and philosophy in a university setting. Besides, one never knows how Jewish studies will become useful later in life. Just ask our recent alumnus from China, who landed a prestigious biomedical internship after her interviewer was shocked to learn she spoke Yiddish.

Anna Shternshis is the director of the Anne Tanenbaum Centre for Jewish Studies and an Al and Malka Green associate professor in Yiddish studies at University of Toronto.