Like other thinkers throughout history, American astronomer and astrophysicist Carl Sagan said in order to understand the present, one must know the past. At Arizona State University, Jewish studies strives to put that idea into practice, both in the classroom and in the greater Phoenix community.
“At ASU, students may take a course in history but never discuss its relevant Jewish aspect,” said program director and Regents Professor Hava Tirosh-Samuelson. “In truth, Jewish history is global history. There is simply no way to talk about any history — be it American history, European history, art history or world history — without mentioning the Jewish experience.”
Established in what is today The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, Jewish studies at ASU began in 1978 as a certificate in the religious studies program. Founded by Associate Professor Joel Gereboff, the certificate introduced students to Judaism, its sacred texts and religious rituals. In 2009, the program added an interdisciplinary Bachelor of Arts degree that covers the entire Jewish civilization from antiquity to the present.
Faculty associated with the Jewish studies program hold academic appointments in various units at ASU, including the School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies, the School of International Languages and Cultures, Department of English, School of Politics and Global Studies, the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts, and the College of Integrative Sciences and Arts. In this regard, Tirosh-Samuelson said, the program manifests ASU’s commitment to interdisciplinarity.
The program brings the same approach to the Phoenix community thanks to a range of public-facing events offered by the Center for Jewish Studies.
Tirosh-Samuelson, who also directs the center, said she has long been committed to integrating her academic scholarship and her commitment to public outreach. When she became director of the Jewish studies program in 2008, she found the perfect opportunity to implement her vision.
“Scholars of Jewish studies have debated whether the Jewish scholar has an obligation to the Jewish community. I have long maintained that scholars are part of the community at large, and the ideal of social embeddedness has always been an important part of my work,” said Tirosh-Samuelson, also an Irving and Miriam Lowe Professor of Modern Judaism in the School of Historical, Philosophical, Religious Studies. “My approach to public humanities coheres well with President Crow’s direction for ASU, so Jewish studies carries out the broader vision and mission of ASU.”
Under Tirosh-Samuelson’s direction, the Center for Jewish Studies has built a robust lineup of community-focused events since its founding in 2009. Today, programming includes lectures, panel discussions, exhibitions and conferences addressing everything from culture and politics to science and medicine, all through the lens of the Jewish experience.
Jeffrey Cohen, dean of the humanities at The College, said the classroom-to-community approach fostered by the center could serve as a model for the development of the humanities at large.
“The future of the humanities is to become increasingly public-facing and engage our communities on the essential questions of our time,” Cohen said. “One of the strengths of Jewish studies is that it has always had a dual identity in that it’s both a rigorous academic program and a community asset that does a lot of outward-facing education. It is really a model of how a humanities program can be both intellectually rigorous and socially engaged.”
Cohen said the center and academic program is also an opportunity to ensure local Jewish history is kept alive.
“Phoenix is a city with a rich Jewish history people don’t always know about,” he said. “We have a huge Jewish community here — we have Holocaust survivors and we have Jewish communities who have settled here from around the world. So I think there’s a lot of good work to be done when it comes to explaining Judaism itself to non-Jews.”
One example of that idea in action is a photo exhibit unveiled last month at the Arizona Jewish Historical Society titled, “Jewish Treasures of the Caribbean.” The exhibit is the result of a collaboration between Stanley Mirvis, an assistant professor of history and the Harold and Jean Grossman Chair in Jewish Studies who specializes in the Sephardic diaspora, and photographer Wyatt Gallery. Gallery’s images and Mirvis’ corresponding text explore how historic Jewish communities in the Caribbean have helped shape island nations and Jewish life in little-known diasporas. The event was just one of a handful created through partnerships with local cultural institutions, which Cohen said will continue to grow.
Interdisciplinarity in action
Though the Jewish studies program is housed in the School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies, affiliated faculty belong to other academic units across the university. To Tirosh-Samuelson, whose own work examines intersections of philosophy and mysticism, Judaism and science, and Judaism and ecology, the interdisciplinary nature of Jewish studies transcends traditional academic divisions and highlights the contribution of Jews and Judaism to many aspects of Western culture.
“Jewish studies is an ideal program in terms of interdisciplinarity because the inquiries about Jews and Judaism belong in the humanities, the social sciences and even the natural sciences,” she said. “To be a student in Jewish studies is actually to be a student of history, religion, philosophy, art, psychology, political science and other subjects, all of which contribute to one’s intellectual and emotional growth. To study Jews and Judaism requires one to reflect on the human condition.”
That notion is what drove Seth Moller, now a junior at The College pursuing concurrent bachelor’s degrees in history and Jewish studies, to change course as a first-year student.
“I had initially decided on a linguistics major, but in my second semester I took a class focused on Jewish history from antiquity to 1492,” he said. “The course really struck me because it was history, but it was a part of history that not everyone is taught — I added a Jewish studies major that next semester.”
Moller aims to continue studying the field as a graduate student. But he said regardless of what comes next, he sees the Jewish studies program as an opportunity to rethink one’s view of the world.
“Jewish history can be presented as a series of tragedies throughout time, so for me this program has helped to bring so much nuance and detail and beauty to it,” he said. “Even if I don’t end up in academia or teaching, I'm confident that my Jewish studies major has helped me to rethink history and the way that people act in social spaces — I’d recommend a course that does that to anyone.”
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