The University of Oklahoma's Judaic studies program recently expanded to encompass a major of its own.
The OU Board of Regents approved the new Judaic studies major at its June 25 meeting.
The major will accompany several other expansions in the program. An $800,000 grant from the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation was accepted by the regents at their January meeting.
The gift endowed a Schusterman Professorship of Jewish Religious and Intellectual History. Dr. Alan Levenson was chosen to fill that position and will begin teaching at OU in the fall.
"I would just like to say I'm very grateful to the university for creating this position," Levenson said over the phone as he was packing up his office at Siegal College in Cleveland, Ohio.
The Schusterman gift also will endow a Schusterman Chair in Modern Israel Studies a few years in the future. The grant also includes a matching gift program that would provide $50,000 over five years in support of general activities relating to Judaic studies at OU.
The program was established with a gift from the Schusterman foundation in 1993. Since then, it has grown to include six core faculty members in addition to other related faculty members, said Norman Stillman, director of the Judaic studies program and Schusterman/Josey Chair of Judaic History.
Every year at least 700 students take classes within the program, most for general education requirements. About four or five students at any time are getting the minor.
In five years, Stillman estimates about five to 10 people per year will get a Judaic studies major.
The program is interdisciplinary, and uses resources in several departments, including history, religious studies, anthropology and modern languages.
"It's in the same vein as, say, classical studies, Western civilization," Stillman said.
The program is attractive to Jewish students who want to learn about their heritage, but Stillman said most of the students who take Judaic studies classes are not Jewish.
Some are Christians wanting to learn about the basis of their religion, what Stillman calls "the philosemitism of the Bible Belt."
Judaic studies teaches more than just the Jewish religion, it's beneficial for all students, Stillman said. Students go on to a variety of things after studying in the program, including the clergy, academia and community services, he said.
Amanda Rabineau of Norman minored in Judaic studies when she was at OU. Now she works at the Center for Children and Families. Rabineau, who is not Jewish, said she probably would have double majored in social work and Judaic studies if the option had been there when she was at school.
She and her husband, Shay, both took Judaic studies classes at OU, initially because of their interest in the religion as the basis for their own Christian beliefs. But the Rabineaus also have spent the past seven summers in Israel, working with the same home for abused children.
So more than just a personal interest in Judaic studies, Amanda Rabineau said she enjoyed learning about the culture and history of the people she came to love in Israel.
"Israel is just a part of Shay and I's interest and passion," she said. Her husband will pursue his doctorate in Near East and Judaic studies with a focus on modern Israel at Brandeis University this fall.
She said the classes that stood out to her at OU were the Hebrew language classes.
"The professors really took a personal interest in you and helped to further you," she said.
The professors cared so much about her success, that she said she wanted to do well not just for herself but to please them. She also took an independent studies course with Stillman, who has had a significant role in several areas of her life.
He helped Shay pick the perfect spot to propose to her in Jerusalem. And he even played a part in naming their daughter. Amanda's "Hebrew name" in language class was Ariella, and she got engaged in Jerusalem, known as the city of Ariel, so the Rabineaus named their one-and-a-half-year-old girl Ariella.
"Dr. Stillman, he's kind of had a huge part in our marriage and engagement and also in our daughter's name," Rabineau said.
Stillman came to Norman in 1995 to start the Judaic studies program.
He said he never thought about living in Oklahoma before, but had a positive experience when he was a guest lecturer at OU. So he decided to come to OU to build the program because Judaic studies is a worthwhile academic discipline, he said.
"It deserves to be everywhere, not just where there is a large Jewish population," he said.
Levenson also said Oklahoma seems to be an out-of-the-way place for a Judaic studies program. He comes to OU from his position as professor of Jewish history at Siegal College.
But he said many universities in areas with low Jewish populations are getting great Judaic studies programs.
"I was not surprised to find scholars of supreme caliber 'cause this is what's happened to Jewish studies in the last 25 years," he said. "There are wonderful Jewish studies departments at unlikely universities."
Levenson said there are two explanations for this: the cynical and the idealistic interpretation that he prefers.
"The cynical interpretation is that Jewish philanthropists are very eager to be represented in great American institutions," he said. Many hospital wings, museum galleries and university departments are named after Jewish benefactors, Levenson said.
"But I think the more pertinent reason -- and the true reason -- is that in multicultural America the Jewish population and the Jewish tradition is seen as a truly important part of the American story, and not something to be left in a ghetto," he said.
Jewish studies, like African American studies, Latino studies, or even women's studies, should benefit all Americans, Levenson said.
"The justification of a Jewish studies program anywhere, even in the heart of New York City, ought to be its ability to promote sophisticated thought and rigorous thinking and to promote models of understanding."
Julianna Parker 366-3541 firstname.lastname@example.org