Judaic Studies course offerings sustain program despite low enrollment

Media Credit: Donna Armstrong | Contributing Photo Editor

Phillips Hall houses the Judaic Studies program, which currently has just three majors.

Just three students are currently majoring in Judaic Studies – but faculty said popular course offerings help sustain the small program.

Over the past decade, the Judaic Studies program has had fewer than six majors each academic year and even endured a four-year period with no majors, according to institutional data. Faculty said despite the low enrollment, the program is not in danger because its course selections on popular topics, like the Holocaust and Israel, attract students across majors.

Paul Wahlbeck, the interim dean for the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences, said the department has more than 150 students enrolled in the program’s seven courses this semester.

He added that the program draws faculty from departments in social sciences and humanities, with eight faculty members who regularly teach classes and two faculty members who have endowed professorships.

“While Judaic Studies has always been a small-sized program, we believe it offers critical learning opportunities for students interested in the study of Jewish history, culture, religion and politics,” Wahlbeck said in an email.

He said the campus community also benefits from monthly guest lectures and film screenings organized by the program.

Daniel Schwartz, the director of the Judaic Studies program and an associate professor of history, said the program, which launched more than a decade ago, exposes students to the “whole spectrum” of the Jewish experience, with courses related to religion and history.

He said the program has always been relatively small, with three majors this year and one during the last academic year. Between 2008 and 2012, the program had between two and five majors each year, but had no majors between 2013 and 2016, according to institutional data.

But Schwartz said that even as enrollment remains stagnant, the department added two courses this semester – Banned Books of the Bible and the History of Zionism.

“We have existed for not just students who want to concentrate in Judaic Studies, but for students who want to take courses,” he said.

Schwartz added that one of his goals over the next few years is to increase interest in the program’s minor by “boosting awareness” around campus and hosting more programs for students. He said two students are currently minoring in Judaic Studies, and four students graduated with the minor last spring.

He said that ideally, the department would also be able to offer more courses if faculty in other departments, like anthropology and sociology, were willing to teach courses related to Judaism. The French department plans to offer a new course titled modern France and the Jews next semester, he said.

Jeffrey Richter, a history and Judaic Studies professor, said he noticed a decline in majors over the past decade but has seen increased interest in the program’s courses recently.

GW has long boasted a large Jewish student population, housing at least five Jewish student organizations.

Richter has taught a course on the Holocaust since 2005 and said it has always “done well,” enrolling roughly 35 students each semester.

“There’s always an abiding interest in the Holocaust, and that course enrollment has increased over time,” he said. “I think GW’s proximity from the Holocaust Museum means that it’s a good institution to come to if students are interested in the Holocaust.”

Anyu Silverman, a senior and a Judaic Studies major, said that majoring in a small department does not impact her studies because it’s a “hyper-specific discipline” that may not have widespread interest around campus.

“I don’t feel slighted. I am comfortable in this niche,” Silverman said. “I don’t have a problem with the size of the department now, I just don’t know who will be in my senior seminar class.”

Crystal Nieves-Murphy contributed reporting.

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