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Jewish Journal

Students Get Religion

At colleges, number minoring in religious studies soars, but majoring is another story.


by Andrea Adelson

September 5, 2002 | 8:00 pm

The Sept. 11 terrorist attack propelled already soaring interest in religious studies courses at mainstream college campuses in Orange County and around the nation.

Enrollment in religious studies curriculum, climbing for a decade, closed a month before the 2002 fall semester began at Chapman University and Cal State Fullerton. Yet, the subject's popularity has not translated into an equivalent number of students who major in the discipline. Besides exacerbating a shortage of graduate students seeking admission to theological seminaries, the number in undergraduate religious studies departments remains small. With few faculty members, they typically are comparable in size to other specialty studies programs that focus on women, Asians or Chicanos, all nurtured by '60s-era ethnic awareness.

Times may be changing, though. One professor predicts that the collapse of business ethics, exposed in recent months by a drumbeat of accounting scandals, is likely to reverse the academic pendulum. Instead of a stampede for practical career training, professor Marvin Meyer, co-chair of Chapman's religious studies department, expects humanities -- and possibly religious studies -- will regain favor. "What has been exposed will have a huge impact on business schools," he said.

Religious studies, whose curriculum draws on history, philosophy, art and ethnic studies, is a de facto liberal arts education. "Intercultural sensitivity holds them in good stead in a place like Southern California," added professor Benjamin Hubbard, who chairs Cal State University Fullerton's comparative religion department.

Moreover, studying religion in an academic environment is a more balanced approach compared to synagogue- or church-based Bible study, academics argue. "Temple schools have an agenda," said professor Arlene Lazarowitz, director of Cal State University Long Beach's Jewish studies, offered as a minor this fall for the first time. "The university agenda is much more open. You're not going to get this from a rabbi; he'll incur the wrath of his board."

Academic distance from religious studies narrowed after a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 1961 outlawed Bible reading in public schools. In the opinion of one jurist, academic study comparing religions was preferable to indoctrination, Hubbard recalls. That was the green light for a new scholarly niche.

In academic circles, any lingering hesitancy to embrace the new discipline ended with the 1978 Iranian revolution and the seizure of American hostages.

"As I've tried to argue to my colleagues, not to understand the religious component in geopolitical situations is to miss a huge component," said Hubbard, noting that Osama bin Laden was not the first extremist overlooked by the U.S. government, which supported the Shah of Iran. "Religion is a powerful, powerful factor in human life, often for ill," said he. About 550 students enroll in Fullerton's 22 religious studies classes each semester, though only 40 major in the topic.

As political science departments and history majors study fascism and communism, so, too, Hubbard argues, should religious studies students examine religion as a factor in extremism. Its examples make front pages daily: the U.S. abortion debate, Tibet's Dalai Lama; India-Pakistan hostilities in Kashmir; warfare between Britain and Ireland.

Sept. 11 and the Palestinian intifada underscore religion's capacity for unabated virulence.

In the '60s, religious studies appealed to students intrigued by remote Eastern beliefs and discontent with academia's Western orientation. Today, cultural awareness is far greater because of immigration and globalization. Today's students wrestle with different questions. "More focus is on ethical and spiritual issues," said professor Marilyn Harran, co-chair of Chapman's religious studies department and director of its Holocaust studies center. "We cannot offer a sufficient number of classes to meet the kind of interest there is," added Meyer. Seven faculty, supplemented by adjunct professors, teach 15 classes each semester, drawing about 450 students. But only 10 a year major in the topic.

To accommodate the few students who want to pursue Jewish studies at public universities, the state college system permits an intercampus major, allowing students to fulfill requirements by enrolling in classes at alternate locations. So far, the consortium consists of California State Universities in Chico, San Diego and San Francisco. Approval is expected in fall 2003 at Long Beach, and at Fullerton soon thereafter, said Lazarowitz. For example, she said, Fullerton students can enroll in Hebrew and American Jewish history at Long Beach, while Long Beach students enroll in Fullerton's "Introduction to Judaism" classes.

Long Beach established a Jewish studies minor following lobbying in 1999 by Michael S. Rassler, executive director of the Jewish Federation of Greater Long Beach. "This came out of nowhere; this was a bolt out of the blue," said Lazarowitz, who for years has supervised student teachers at the campus and is an expert in American foreign policy. "I never knew Jewish studies existed."

Jewish studies at Long Beach remains a virtual department: the emphasis is created by drawing on pre-existing, interdisciplinary classes in history, literature and religious studies. Students include evangelical Christians who want to read the Old Testament in Hebrew, said Lazarowitz. "That's very important. We don't want this to be a major for Jewish students, but for anyone."

In a sign of its commitment to strengthen the fledgling program, Long Beach's religious studies department recently hired an expert in Judaism, Yechiel Shalom Goldberg, who starts this semester. Goldberg, a former Indiana University professor, specializes in Jewish mysticism.

"Now we can get off the ground," said Lazarowitz, who expects about 85 students to fulfill the 19-unit minor this year. New to the curriculum is "Literature of the Holocaust," taught by Carl Fisher, a professor of comparative literature.

Personally, her new academic responsibilities enriched Lazarowitz's scholarly work. Her most recent research topic is Jacob Javits, the former New York senator who pushed a bill to penalize financially the former Soviet Union for restrictive immigration policies toward Soviet Jews. Her article was accepted for publication next summer in the scholarly Jewish studies journal, Shofar. "I've got a new publishing field now, too," she said.

In the UC system, the Santa Barbara campus has the most mature religious studies program, even granting doctoral degrees. UC Irvine offers a religious studies minor around three core courses, which each quarter fill with 100 students, said Daniel S. Schroeter, the Teller Family professor of Jewish history at UCI.

A major would require a faculty whose primary emphasis is religious studies, and none of the faculty that are currently involved meet that description, Schroeter said. He thinks a religious studies major is likely within a few years.

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