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Elon to welcome professor of Jewish studies in the fall

by Caitlin O'Donnell,

This fall, Elon University will welcome Geoffrey Claussen, the first professor of Jewish studies, an arrival that is part of a larger movement on the academic side of Jewish life, which has expanded in recent years.

The current freshman and incoming classes are, at a minimum, 7 percent Jewish, though probably much larger, said Nancy Luberoff, Hillel director.

"We have done a good job of supporting student life, but the academic end has been slower to respond because, by nature, academic change is much slower and requires new positions, people and curriculum," she said.

Compared to peer and aspirant institutions with similar Jewish populations, Luberoff said Elon is below the norm in terms of Jewish studies classes. She noted examples such as the Yaschik/Arnold Jewish Studies Program at the College of Charleston, the Judaic studies minor at George Mason University and Jewish studies course offerings at the UNC Greensboro.

"What we're seeing is the increase in Jewish population has pushed and energized student life on campus," she said. "And as Jewish life becomes more energized, more Jewish students come."

The department of religious studies first began advertising the position last year, according to Michael Pregill, assistant professor of religious studies and one of the six full-time faculty members in the department who were involved in the hiring process.

When a department attempts to create a new position, it must argue in terms of both numbers, such as who is available to teach courses, as well as the significance. In this case, the importance of a Jewish studies component is the discussion and specialties the department represents.

"The overarching interest in developing Jewish life and a Jewish studies program is in line with the rapidly increasing Jewish population," Pregill said.

After interviews at the meetings of the American Academy of Religion and Association of Jewish Studies last semester, the finalists were narrowed down to three.

Faculty and students were given the chance to meet with candidates, both to evaluate them and answer their questions, Luberoff said.

"That was a hugely reciprocal process because the finalists, in different ways, were also interested to know the kind of Jewish life they'd find on campus and we were in the best position to answer that," she said.

While Pregill said the department has traditionally been dominated by Christian themes, it has increasingly become more diversified, making this transition a natural one for the university.

The two courses Claussen will be teaching in the fall include Jewish Traditions, tracing the history of the Jewish community, and Religion in a Global Context, introducing students to the study of religion, as well as its multi- faceted role in the world.

"I have a deep interest in the history of Jewish ethics and especially conceptions of love, compassion and justice," Claussen said. "I'm also very interested in questions of moral development, especially in considering the ways in which Jewish practices may impact moral character."

Coupled with these courses, Elon will also offer a class in modern Hebrew, which already has strong student support, according to Luberoff. There are also discussions about the formation of
a Jewish studies minor or concentration, which could potentially begin this fall, she said.

"This is part of a whole package of making Elon a diverse university and it's not enough just to say that the student population is diverse," she said. "We have to have all of the support services and academic support to go with it."

Claussen is currently working toward a doctorate in Jewish thought at the Jewish Theological Seminary Graduate School in New York

This spring, he taught courses in Jewish ethics and an introduction to Judaism at Oberlin College. In 2007, he was ordained as a rabbi at the Jewish Theological Seminary Rabbinical School.