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Building a Vibrant Program at an Under-Funded State University

Ranen Omer-Sherman

When I first arrived at the University of Louisville in the fall of 2014, I felt seriously challenged. The endowed chair position for which I had applied was the culmination of fifteen years of tireless fundraising by members of the greater Louisville Jewish community. Knowing that the community’s expectations were high, before signing my contract I insisted that a substantial portion of the endowment be set aside for future Jewish Studies programming to directly benefit the public. That decision would later prove to have an exciting impact on the cultural and intellectual life of both the university and the community at large (I am sometimes amazed by the cultural luminaries I subsequently managed to bring to the community during my relatively short time here, including Etgar Keret, Sayed Kashua, David Grossman, and Sander Gilman, among others).

But my first priority was to develop a Jewish Studies minor. Prior to my arrival at UofL, a well-meaning colleague had suspended the previous program as an act of protest because of the lack of a Hebrew instructor, thinking that this would somehow bring pressure to bear on future hiring. I felt that action had done more harm than good so after researching the programs of two dozen research institutions, I successfully made the case that a respectable minor could be reconstituted through offerings in Literature, History, Religious Studies and other disciplines (the new program offers two modules designed to meet the interests of our undergrads: the Jewish Cultural Studies Track and a Jewish Language & Culture Track which enables students to earn credit through Arabic, Hebrew, or Yiddish courses taken at any accredited institution). I share my colleague’s conviction that our program should include Hebrew language instruction, but our state-funding horizon requires tough pragmatism to achieve what we can.

Moving to the University of Louisville from the University of Miami meant transitioning from a rich private institution to a relatively poor public institution with limited hiring prospects. Moreover my tiny program recently lost two faculty members whose support, long experience, and insights had been crucial to the vigor of the program. I realized that I would need to reach out to faculty who had no current involvement with the Jewish Studies curriculum yet who might have something valuable to offer. I also considered the fact that many of my colleagues’ salaries are relatively modest at my institution and there is little incentive for new curricular development. So I developed a new initiative; the “Jewish Studies Faculty Incentive Grant” was  awarded to a winning proposal from a faculty member interested in developing a new undergraduate course for the Jewish Studies minor.  I am delighted to affirm that this little experiment attracted a very strong winning proposal from a colleague who subsequently spent a summer researching and developing a course titled “Latin American Jewish Identities” that has significantly enriched our coverage of global Jewish culture.

When I was interviewed I told the committee that I hoped to build a truly collaborative and intellectually vibrant community of colleagues. So to that end, I successfully inaugurated the Jewish Studies Colloquium, a stimulating luncheon series in which UofL faculty, as well as colleagues from regional institutions and occasional guests, informally present their latest research and creative activities to one another (while dining on delicious deli of course!). There was also a history of distrust and incivility between Jewish Studies and UofL’s Middle East and Islamic Studies program (predictably over Israel-related issues) but here too, I have forged new understandings and collaborations in some of our programming.

As this flurry of activity probably suggests, I hit the ground running. Yet while I have enjoyed some successes there have also been somewhat demoralizing, if predictable, failures along the way (only lately have I begun to come to terms with the fact that I tried to achieve too much, too quickly).  For instance, in spite of months of intense planning, raising scholarships and attracting some student interest, I was not able to launch a study-abroad program focused on coexistence efforts in Israel and the West Bank. Nor was I able to persuade the Modern Languages Department to collaborate on hiring a Hebrew instructor (it turned out that there was bad blood between my home department and theirs over past spending).

On the other hand, I can take a measure of pride in accomplishments such as collaborating with the local Jewish Family & Career Services to develop an Oral Studies Service Learning course each semester that offers students training in the techniques of oral history gathering to preserve the stories of Jewish seniors who helped create the fabric of history, local, national, and sometimes international. I also created opportunities for graduate students to participate in a groundbreaking archival project intended to document the rich and surprising history of Jewish Louisville by researching historical photos, audio recordings, and other materials. Both endeavors contribute to my university’s overall effort to build bridges to the community. Looking ahead toward severe budgetary uncertainties, I have tempered my expectations, still aiming high while also retaining a sense of pragmatism and hopefully building stronger community and institutional partnerships for the Jewish Studies program.

Ranen Omer-Sherman is the Jewish Heritage Fund for Excellence Endowed Chair in Judaic Studies at the University of Louisville.