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Alon Confino, a native of Tel Aviv, and the Ida and Nathan Kolodiz Director of Jewish Studies at U.Va., says the climate is right for Jewish studies programs in universities. In Virginia, five colleges and universities offer a minor in Jewish studies: Virginia Tech, Old Dominion University, Virginia Commonwealth University, the University of Richmond and the University of Virginia. U.Va. offers a major in Jewish studies as well.

University of Virginia
Professor Confino credits interest in the Holocaust as one of the things that has inspired the growing interest in Jewish studies.

At U.Va., classes fall into three broad categories: religious tradition and faith, history and culture, and language and literature. Hebrew Language (Biblical or modern) is a requirement for the major. Some of the more unusual classes include Israeli Cinema, History of Zionism, and Landscaping in Israel. Yiddish is a popular class and an intermediate Yiddish and culture class has been added. Jewish music is also a favorite and Joel Rubin, Klezmer musician, is teaching a Klezmer ensemble class.

The program offers lectures, seminars and concerts. As part of Israel’s 60th anniversary, U.Va. will host an international interdisciplinary conference about music and identity in Israel on April 13 and 14. Titled “Hearing Israel: Music, Culture and History at 60,” the event will include scholars as well as Israeli, Arabic, rock and pop music, culminating in a concert with an Israeli rock singer.
In addition, there is a Jewish Studies trip this summer to Poland. Open to any U.Va. student, the trip will look at Jewish life in Poland during the first half of the twentieth century, before and during the Holocaust. Check out www.virginia.edu/jewishstudies or contact Professor Alon Confino.

Virginia Tech
“Most people don’t think of Jews and Hokies,” laughs Acting Coordinator of the Malcolm and Diane Rosenberg Program in Judaic Studies, Brian Britt.

Britt says that, “now is a vibrant time for Jewish life on the Virginia Tech campus.” He adds that Jewish life is also becoming more diverse and active. He attributes that to an active Hillel on campus and a new Chabad community in Blacksburg. The Librescu Chabad House, named after Professor Liviu Librescu who was killed April 16, 2007 while barring his classroom door against a gunman, recently opened and its rabbi, Elazar Bloom, is currently the only rabbi in Blacksburg.

Virginia Tech is interested in outreach to the public in Blacksburg and the surrounding area. They have brought in Pulitzer Prize winner Elie Wiesel and the curator of the Dead Sea Scrolls from Israel. They sponsored a concert with wildly popular Jewish reggae singer Matisyahu. There are also plans to bring in author Jonathan Safran Foer, as well as A.J. Jacobs, author of The Year of Living Biblically, a study of his quest to live the ultimate biblical life by following every single rule in the Bible as literally as possible. Check out www.idst.vt.edu/judaic or contact Professor Brian Britt.

University of Richmond
About five years ago, Associate Chemistry Professor Sam Abrash and Louis Schwartz, who teaches in the English Department, talked about more options for the growing number of Jewish students at the University of Richmond. They convened a group of interested faculty, put together a presentation and the Jewish Studies program and minor was born at the University of Richmond.
Like those at the other universities, the program is interdisciplinary. Students are also permitted to take courses for credit at nearby VCU.

Many non-Jews too are fascinated by Judaism, according to Abrash. He points out one student who is a Chemistry/Religion double major. From her Jewish classes in the Religion Department, she became interested and declared a minor in Jewish Studies. She even went to Israel as a result of her interest. Check out www.jewishstudies.richmond.edu or contact Sam Abrash.

Old Dominion University
In 2002, a $300,000 challenge grant from the Dudley Cooper Trust enabled Old Dominion University to begin a Jewish studies program and establish The Institute for Jewish Studies and Interfaith Understanding.

The Tidewater area has many good Jewish resources in an area rich with synagogues, museums, archives and community leaders. The university wanted to use and share these resources. The community wanted to offer these assets. So, according to Academic Director Maura Hametz, “The Institute has become a vibrant voice for the community, the university and the students.”

This year the Institute is pleased to host visiting professor Ilan Avisar from Israel. Professor Avisar, in the Department of Communication and Theater Arts, is also a specialist in Holocaust film and Israeli media. He serves on the Israeli Commission on Film and is a professor of communication at Tel Aviv University.
This semester Avisar is teaching a class in Holocaust Film and one in Israeli Cinema and Modern Israeli Culture. In his Israeli Cinema class, he likes to show and discuss films that “mirror the society and traditions of the people.” He enjoys the mix of Jewish, African-American, Israeli, and Christian students as well as community and faculty members who take his classes. His wife, Batya, teaches Hebrew in the department, making it possible for ODU to offer advanced Hebrew. Check out http://al.odu.edu/ijiu or contact Maura Hametz.

Virginia Commonwealth University
Students interested in Jewish studies at VCU have two options - a minor in Judaic Studies, which consists of 18 credits, or a Certificate in Judaic Studies, which is awarded to students, including auditors, who complete six courses in Judaic studies.

Jack D. Spiro, Affiliate Professor of Religious Studies at VCU, directs the university’s Center for Judaic Studies. Established about 15 years ago, the minor falls within the School of World Studies, and is interdisciplinary. Most of the students who choose it are majors in religious studies, history or philosophy. 

Courses in the department include History of the Jewish People, Hebrew Prophets, The American Jewish Experience, and Modern Jewish Thought. Spiro believes, “that the classes are intrinsically interesting because young Americans are motivated in our bewildering and perilous time to be more involved in religious issues.” 

Judaic Studies is the major part of Spiro’s responsibilities, but he teaches other courses as well - about 325 students each semester. He also edits the Menorah Review which features review essays of contemporary books, original articles on Jewish themes, poetry and annotated “briefings” about books and journal articles. He delivers VCU’s annual spring lecture: the Brown-Lyons Annual Lecture, which features topics ranging from humor to Jewish-Islamic Relations to Kabbalah. Check out www.vcu.edu/judaicstudies or contact Jack D. Spiro.

-Robin Beller Jackson and Nikki Steingold

Copyright 2007. Virginia Jewish Life Magazine.