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Development of Jewish Studies program progressing

by Caitlin O'Donnell,
  • Geoffrey Claussen started this semester as the first Jewish Studies professor. His arrival is part of a larger move to expand Jewish life on campus. Photo by Elizabeth Everett.

Jewish life on campus will get a bit more academic this year with the arrival of Geoffrey Claussen, the first professor of Jewish Studies.

Part of Claussen's responsibility this year will be developing the parameters for what a Jewish Studies program would look like at Elon University.

A main component of the task is developing the courses that will provide the foundation of the program. Claussen said he plans to draw from different departments,
including religious life, philosophy and history, while playing to the strengths of the professors from each.

Jewish identity for students, faculty and staff is an interwoven package of religion, culture, history, academic pursuits and even culinary pursuits, according to Nancy Luberoff, Hillel campus director.

As the academic nature of Jewish life is strengthened, these other aspects will be strengthened as well, she said.

The population of Jewish students on campus currently sits at 7 percent of the Class of 2015, though she estimates the actual number is much higher.

"We only know by who tells us," Luberoff said. "The way Elon asks about religion, you have to be one thing or another. A huge percentage has one parent who is not (Jewish)."

For decades, the Jewish population hovered between 1 and 3 percent, she said. That all changed with the hiring of a Hillel staff member.

As the infrastructure is strengthened, the national presence of the campus is likewise bolstered.

"The institution can hover at 1, 2, 3 percent forever," Luberoff said. "But once you start breaking out, students come to the university not despite of being Jewish, but because it's more welcoming."

There will be some overlap between Hillel and the Jewish Studies program but not all students who elect to participate in the academic programs will also be an active member of Jewish religious life, according to Claussen.

"Some students who take Jewish studies courses have a strong attachment to Jewish traditions or to the Jewish people," Claussen said. "Others don't have personal attachments but, for any number of reasons, have profound interest. And some are just curious."

Sophomore Mason Sklut, a Hillel member currently working to create a Jewish fraternity on campus, said he finds the study of Judaism fascinating because it transcends beyond the topic of religion and also encompasses culture, language, philosophy and history. It also includes discussions of interfaith cooperation.

"By implementing the Jewish Studies program at Elon, the university is saying that it believes in the importance of understanding and respecting the diversity of its students," Sklut said.

The university was recently recognized in an edition of "Reform Judaism" magazine as one of six overlooked schools across the country that have "gone the extra mile" to make their campuses more attractive to Jewish students. This will be the first year that the university hosts
a full program of High Holy Day services, according to Luberoff, including Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. In the past, participating students had to travel to either Greensboro or the University of North Carolina.

"Elon has developed a reputation as a campus that is very supportive of Jewish students and word has gotten out within the Jewish community, especially on the East Coast, though through the rest of the country, as well," Claussen said.

Claussen said the administration has been supportive of both the academic side of the program, but also the development of Jewish life on campus.

"It goes above what other schools are doing, in many respects," he said. "Some of that stems from Elon's interest in fostering a more multicultural campus. Elon's commitment to multiculturalism has meant very good things for students interested in Jewish studies and for further developments here on campus."