Jewish Studies History at Michigan State University

Michigan State University’s Jewish Studies Program began in the early 1990s with a focus on the two centers of contemporary Jewish life, the United States and Israel. What was once central in Jewish life, Europe, has in the past century become more peripheral, perhaps even becoming a vanishing world in the Jewish diaspora;  what were once peripheral, the U.S. and Israel, became central – the two centers of post-migration, post-Holocaust Jewish life.

This great modern global transformation in the organization and location of Jewish life, the varieties of Jewish life in Europe and North America, where Jews formed voluntary communities, and in Israel, where Jews have their own sovereign state, Judaism, the religion of the Jews, modern Jewish thought, and the varieties of Jewish creative expressions (literature, music, art, etc) were and remain our key concerns.  In addition, we are increasingly interested to explore some of the differences in the multiplicity of sites and communities that comprise the global Jewish diaspora.

The program works with faculty in six colleges and more than ten departments at MSU to provide undergraduate courses, an undergraduate specialization, and allied academic activities in Jewish civilization. Students have opportunities to study Hebrew, Jewish life in Europe, America and Israel, Judaism, Jewish thought, Jewish literature and culture, Jews and anti-semitism, the Holocaust, Israeli politics and society, American Jewry and Israeli Jewry in comparative perspective, and more. Faculty members are also available to work with students on special undergraduate research projects, senior theses, and independent studies, to assist with plans and recommendations for graduate and professional study, and to serve on relevant graduate doctoral committees.

The program also brings in Israeli and other visiting scholars to augment our faculty resources and to expand and enrich the curriculum, hosting scholars for short visits and short courses or for longer stays and regular courses during a semester or a year.

In addition, the program offers an annual schedule of public events on Jewish themes with emphases on American Jewish life and culture, Israeli life and culture, Yiddishkeit, the Holocaust, Jewish film, the arts, music, and literature, modern Israel, the Israeli-Arab-Palestinian conflict, modern Jewish public affairs, and more. The Jewish Studies program sponsors an annual Modern Israel lecture, mounts MSU’s annual Israeli film festival, and organizes an annual Holocaust lecture or event as well.

Jewish Studies also sponsors study abroad,  a key feature of the program, during the academic year in Israel at four major Israeli universities, directs its own MSU Jewish Studies summer program at Hebrew University’s Rothberg International School, and collaborates in offering a summer program on Nature, Culture, and Environmental Sustainability in a Green Israel.  The Jewish Studies program also is the main administrative center for scholarships for study in Israel, including  the important Julie and Ed Levy Jr. Scholarship, and also the Dot and Ed Slade Scholarship.  A new third scholarship, the Sherri and Albert Gladner Scholarship, is currently in development.

Our goals include increasing opportunities for students to become familiar with the history, religion, language, and culture of the Jewish people and enriching the cultural life of Michigan’s Jewish communities, especially in mid-Michigan and southeast Michigan. The curriculum includes about 20 courses offered annually and our intent is to expand and build on these. Interested students may take 20 credits from among these and also study abroad courses to complete a “Specialization in Jewish Studies.”  Course offerings also include topical seminars, short courses, and summer courses taught by MSU faculty and, as mentioned, by visiting scholars from the U.S., Israel, and elsewhere.

Public Activities

The program organizes lectures, film-showing, community brunches, prominent speakers, colloquia, panel presentations, brown bags, performances, and exhibits. During 2003-04, a museum exhibit, “Uneasy Years: Michigan Jewry During Depression and War,” documented active responses by Michigan Jews to Nazism and to the plight of Jews abroad. It was named one of the thirty best projects sponsored by the Michigan Council on the Humanities in the past thirty years. During 2004-05, the program sponsored a series of appearances by Israeli women film directors with their prize-winning films. A special event in April 2005 brought former children liberated by U.S. soldiers at Buchenwald to share their experiences connected with the 60th anniversary of the liberation of the camps. During 2005-06, the first MSU Israeli Film Festival was launched, now in its 8th year; the first Stanley and Selma Hollander Lecture on Jewish Arts and Music was also given. During 2006-07, the inaugural annual Michael and Elaine Serling Lecture on Modern Israel was given, now in its 6th iteration.  After ten years of dedicated work, the program decided to stop hosting the Annual Michigan Teachers Workshop on the Holocaust.

In recent years, 2010-11, we hosted outstanding China Jewish Studies scholar Xu Xin, and also Israeli novelist Etgar Keret. In 2011-12, with help from a Legacy Heritage Grant from the Association of Jewish Studies, we programmed for the year on the theme, “Telling Family Stories: Jews, Genealogy, and History,” and we also hosted the Michigan premiers of two documentaries, “Between Two Worlds: American Jewish Culture Wars,” and “Kinderblock 66.”  This year, 2012-13, the Jewish Studies program plans to put on an international Israeli Literature Symposium whose purpose it is to highlight the new Irwin T. and Shirley Holtzman Israeli Literature Collection donated in 2012 to the MSU library.  We will host Israeli novelist Meir Shalev, American scholar Robert Alter, and others. Jewish Studies also participates annually as a sponsor in the Detroit Jewish Book Fair during fall and in the Detroit Lenore Marwil Jewish Film Festival in spring.

Jewish Studies publishes an annual fall and spring newsletter that contains news about the program, information on events, and notices about faculty and student achievements. It includes a calendar of activities.

 Institutional History and Jewish Studies Mission

The Jewish Studies Program (JSP) at MSU was created in 1992 with initial support for courses in the Hebrew language from the Max J. Fisher Community Foundation in Southfield, MI. It was built upon the commitment of a few existing faculty at MSU, courses that were already present in the curriculum, and a Jewish Studies Thematic that had existed at MSU since the mid-1970s. Since its founding, the Program has expanded its curricular offerings and activities under four directors with strong support from the university, including the Offices of the President and the Provost and of the Deans in the College of Arts and Letters and James Madison College and with special help from numerous gifts and endowments. Two core positions were created and filled early –one in American Jewish History and Culture, sited in the Department of History, another in Hebrew Language and Literature, in the Department of Linguistics, Germanic, Slavic, African, and Asian Languages. Then, more recently in 2005-06, two additional core positions in Israel Studies and in Judaism and Jewish Thought were added and recruited. The Michael and Elaine Serling and Friends Israel Studies position is supported primarily by a private endowment and is sited in James Madison College; the position in Judaism and Jewish Thought is supported by Arts and Letters and is in Religious Studies.

The mission of the Jewish Studies Program is to provide an enriching university environment of academic learning about Jewish civilization, to attract young Jewish students from Michigan and the rest of the nation and offer them opportunities to develop critical knowledge and perspective on their Jewish heritage, including access to relevant study abroad in Israel and elsewhere, and, finally, to offer to all MSU students, Jews and non-Jews alike, opportunities to learn of the rich traditions, history, society, culture, and religious thought and practices of the Jewish people. Another aspect of the mission of the Jewish Studies Program is to support and highlight the contributions of Jewish Studies faculty at MSU to the scholarship of Jewish Studies and thereby to develop a nationally recognized program that fits with the aspirations of a 21st century global university. Another is to contribute to and enhance knowledge of Jewish life in the university community, mid-Michigan, and the State of Michigan.  Our faculty are regularly invited to speak to community organizations on Jewish-related and Jewish public affairs-related issues and topics in Lansing, Ann Arbor, Grand Rapids, and metropolitan Detroit.

Jewish Studies now includes among its primary activities: a. working with faculty and departments to provide undergraduate courses and conduct research in aspects of Jewish civilization, particularly modern Jewish experience, in Europe, the U.S., and Israel. b. mounting a 20 credit undergraduate specialization in Jewish Studies that permits students flexibly to explore Jewish history, literature, society, and culture, learn Hebrew, and study Judaism., c. supporting faculty professional development and achievement in Jewish Studies, including research and study travel, travel to professional meetings, and support for publication; d. assisting students in taking advantage of opportunities for Study in Israel; and e. offering campus-based or public outreach programs on timely themes in Jewish history, civilization, and culture. These include programs and exhibitions on American Jewish history, society, and culture, on Israeli society and culture, presentations of faculty work-in-progress, public lectures, short courses and presentations by visiting scholars, panel discussions, films, art exhibits, and musical performances.

In August 2003, the Detroit Jewish News recognized that Michigan State University was experiencing a “Renaissance in Jewish Studies”; and in December 2004, Robert Sklar, editor of the Detroit Jewish News,  identified President McPherson and President-designate Simon as “Jewish Studies champions.” [August 23, 2003; Dec. 24, 2004] On January 19, 2006, President Lou Anna Simon visited the Detroit Jewish News and addressed the Board of Governors of the Metropolitan Detroit Jewish Federation. Robert Sklar  wrote that MSU Jewish Studies “has real potential to be a national model,” and praised Simon’s administrative leadership and vision in supporting Jewish Studies and making Jewish students feel welcome at MSU [Feb 16, 2006]


The program includes core faculty who are formally assigned, assisted in their professional development and progress by the program, and expected to contribute roughly half their course assignments to the Jewish Studies specialization and, by their research and scholarship, to increase the visibility of the program. In addition, Jewish Studies attracts a range of additional affiliated faculty members who participate voluntarily, teach occasional courses or seminars when possible, focus on Jewish subject matter in their research and scholarship, and share in the intellectual community of Jewish Studies.  They are  eligible for modest support for research travel and professional development.

These core and affiliated faculty enrich and strengthen our learning community. In addition to the director and a former director, there are five other core faculty formally dedicated to American Jewish History and Culture, Hebrew Language and Literature, Israel Studies, and Judaism and Jewish Thought. The program also has eleven affiliated faculty who cover aspects of European Jewish History, Jews and Anti-Semitism, Jewish Immigration, the Holocaust, American Jewish Lives, American Jewish Literature, Israeli Literature, Israeli Film, The Israel-Arab-Palestinian Conflict, Israeli Politics and Society, and Education.   The program reports to the Dean of the College of Arts and Letters and, in 2007-08, the program conducted a thorough academic review approved by the Dean and by the Provost in the next year.

 The Undergraduate Jewish Studies Specialization

The Jewish Studies Specialization introduces undergraduates to the history, religion, culture, and civilization of the Jewish people. A student must complete a minimum of twenty (20) credits from the courses listed below which can be taken while fulfilling the requirements for a major in nearly any field at MSU. Currently, eight (8) of the credits may be in Hebrew; only second year Hebrew or more counts toward the specialization. Additional advanced credits in Hebrew may be counted as well based on review by the director. We are currently exploring adding advanced to beginning and intermediate Hebrew at MSU. Certification of completion of the Jewish Studies Specialization after review is noted on each qualified student’s academic transcript.


Course Listing for Jewish Studies Program at Michigan State University


Study Abroad in Israel

Working with the MSU Office of International Studies and Programs, Jewish Studies provides assistance to students in arranging semester and year-long study in Israel via agreements with The Hebrew University in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv University, Ben Gurion University and Haifa University.

In 1996 Jewish Studies also planned, and, in 1998, Jewish Studies inaugurated, a summer program with Hebrew University’s Rothberg International School. The program includes MSU designed and approved courses, one taught by an MSU faculty, another course or courses that are reviewed and certified for MSU credit and are taught by Hebrew/Rothberg faculty. Coursework is bolstered by planned excursions and visits to museums and historical sites in Jerusalem and other places in Israel. The program went in 1998 and 2000, was suspended during the second intifada, and resumed in 2006-2013.

Another program on Nature, Culture, and Environmental Sustainability in a Green Israel was initiated in 2008, went again in 2010, and is recruiting  for 2013.

Finally, MSU initiated with support from a MASA grant an MSU Spring Program in Jerusalem that went for a semester in 2012 and will also go in 2013.