In 1654, a group of 23 displaced Jews, who had left a Brazilian government inhospitable to the Jewish people, arrived by ship at the port in the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam, looking for a new place to call home.
The colony’s skeptical governor wrote to his government back home, asking what to do with the immigrants. If I accept these Jews, he complained, I’ll have to start receiving other non-Protestants, like Catholics. But the response came back firmly: Keep the Jews, the Dutch East India Company said. They’ll be productive citizens.
Thus the first official census of Jewish people in the United States was recorded, says Arnold Dashefsky, professor emeritus of sociology and former director of the UConn Center for Judaic Studies and Contemporary Jewish Life.
Since then, those immigrants have given way to a current estimate of 6.8 million Jews in the U.S., as reported by Dashefsky and his colleagues in the 2015 American Jewish Year Book, set to be published in November. And the definition of Judaism – really, what it actually means to be Jewish – has changed quite a bit, too.
“This time of year, rabbis say this a lot, but it’s true: Judaism is more than a religion,” says Dashefsky.
His work, and that of the UConn Center for Judaic Studies, which celebrates its 36th anniversary this year, continues to define what it means to be Jewish: not just by religion, but by heritage, culture and community; and not just in modern times, but in the distant past and the future.
The Judaic Studies Road Show
Jeffrey Shoulson has many titles. In addition to his role as director of the Center for Judaic Studies and his professorships in the departments of English and literatures, cultures and languages, he’s the Doris and Simon Konover Chair in Judaic Studies, which was established by the Konovers in 2007 to support teaching and research by a leading scholar of Jewish life, history, and religion.
As if that level of commitment wasn’t enough, he’s also committed to 10 public talks over the next nine months at Connecticut synagogues, community centers, and libraries as part of the Center’s new series he’s fondly calling the “Judaic Studies Road Show.” The Road Show aims to bring expertise in Jewish culture directly to the people of Connecticut.
Seven other Judaic studies professors are also on the roster, giving talks on more than 25 topics, like Israeli-Arab relations and the use of military force, new perspectives on Holocaust perpetrators, and the idea of forgiveness as represented in the works of Shakespeare. Jeremy Pressman, associate professor of political science and an expert in Middle East studies, is slated to discuss the pending Iran nuclear deal in detail.
Shoulson has given two talks so far, and says they’ve been invigorating.
“People come with questions about Judaism that they’ve just been dying to ask someone,” says Shoulson, now in his fourth year as director of the Center. “It’s great to be able to have those kinds of frank discussions. Humanists have a duty to remind people of the importance of what we do, and this is one way to show people how our work matters.”
In an age where establishments of all kinds are eschewed in growing numbers by the public, the idea of formalized religion is becoming less popular, says Dashefsky. He notes, however, that unlike other religions that rely just on a belief in God or another higher power as criteria for membership, Judaism also defines itself ethnically or culturally.
“As sociologists, we define a Jewish person as one who identifies him or herself as Jewish,” says Dashefsky. It’s even possible to identify as both an atheist and a Jew, he says.
Shoulson also stresses that, like the myriad Judaic studies courses at UConn, the Road Show is certainly not just for Jews.
“We’re definitely not promoting a particular religious point of view,” he says. “We’re engaged in an academic study of the Jewish culture, and our classes and talks reflect that.”
The popularity of Judaic studies courses has set the wheels in motion to create a Judaic studies major, which Shoulson hopes will be offered starting in the fall of 2016.
This year marks the 36th anniversary of the Center for Judaic Studies, an important milestone because of the significance of the number 18 in Jewish thought. Letters have numerical value in Hebrew thought, and the two letters in the Hebrew word chai (חַי), which means “life” or “alive,” add up to 18. So 18 and its multiples are a symbol of good luck in the Jewish faith.
In its 36 years, the Center has evolved from a pair of faculty members teaching a handful of courses to a thriving center with four full-time Judaic studies faculty and 26 affiliated faculty.
What has distinguished the Center from other Judaic studies programs across the country, says Shoulson, is its expertise in early Jewish periods, including representations of Judaism in literature and culture in the pre-modern era.
But representations of modern Judaism and current political issues surrounding Jews are certainly not absent. This year’s 112th American Jewish Year Book, published nearly continuously since 1899, reports that Jews represent only about 52 percent – a “bare majority,” says Dashefsky, of people living in the area between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River. This has great implications for the way Jews in the U.S. and around the world think about the conflict in this area, he says.
The Center will celebrate its milestone on November 15 in the Thomas J. Dodd Research Center with a panel discussion featuring faculty and students of the program. Dashefsky and Stuart Miller, academic director of the Center and professor of literatures, cultures, and languages, will participate, along with former students like Naila Razzaq ’15 (CLAS), who is now pursuing graduate studies in religion at Yale University. Keynote speaker David Ruderman, Joseph Meyerhoff Professor of Modern Jewish History at the University of Pennsylvania, will look back on the evolution of Judaic studies over the last 36 years.
Research like the American Jewish Year Book, community outreach like the Road Show, and the expansion of courses into an eventual new major are all evidence of the Center’s rise as a preeminent voice in the field of Judaic studies.
“I hope that people come away from our anniversary celebration feeling that they have a reason to be proud of what their University is doing,” Shoulson says.
By: Christine Buckley, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences