After long resisting religion-based academic majors, the Johns Hopkins University announced yesterday that it is establishing a Jewish studies program with the help of a $5 million gift from a Baltimore foundation.
The gift from the Leonard and Helen R. Stulman Charitable Foundation is believed to be the largest ever for Jewish education in Maryland, foundation president Shale D. Stiller said yesterday. The $5 million will support new course offerings, additional faculty and public lectures, he said.
"Baltimore is one of the four or five centers for Jewish thought and experience in the entire U.S., and therefore it's really appropriate that the premier educational institution in the city has this type of program," said Stiller. "Most outstanding universities have this type of program ... so if Hopkins is going to maintain its stature, it needs one."
The university has a few building blocks in Jewish studies, including a new endowed chair in European Jewish history and experts on the Hebrew Bible and Dead Sea Scrolls, said David Nirenberg, the Hopkins historian who will direct the new program.
Still, the creation of a Jewish studies division represents a departure for the university, Nirenberg said. In keeping with its secular tradition as a German-style research university, Hopkins had declined to follow the lead of most other leading universities in establishing religious-based majors such as Jewish studies, he said.
The university lacks even a general religious studies department, and until now, courses in Judeo-Christian thought have mostly been taught out of the Near Eastern studies, history or philosophy departments.
Steven David, Hopkins' associate dean for academic affairs, said the new program would "not diverge" from Hopkins tradition because its emphasis would not be theological.
"My sense is that Judaism and Jewish studies is both more and less than a religion - it's the study of a people and its impact on world civilization, an impact that's been quite profound," David said.
The Stulman gift will likely pay for the creation of one permanent faculty chair and several visiting professorships, ideally in areas such as Holy Land archaeology, rabbinical studies and Yiddish literature, said Nirenberg. All but a few of the courses to be offered for the major will be in other departments, he said.
By contrast, the well-regarded Jewish studies program at the University of Maryland, which began in 1974 with a gift from Baltimore philanthropist Joseph Meyerhoff, offers 18 courses within the program.
"Hopkins is going to present a unique profile, because Jewish studies will be practiced within broader disciplines," Nirenberg said.
The foundation was created by Leonard Stulman, a Baltimore businessman who died in 2000. It generally makes smaller grants focused on Jewish issues, health care, mental health, higher education and aging.
Stiller said the Hopkins program could establish ties with the Ner Israel Rabbinical College in Pikesville and make the university more attractive to local Jewish high school students. About 10 percent of Hopkins undergraduates are Jewish, a lower ratio than at many other leading East Coast colleges.
Officials said the program has been under discussion since before Sept. 11, but that it has gained relevance since then. Nirenberg taught a seminar on anti-Semitism for the first time this spring, and 85 students signed up, 60 more than he could accept, and most of them non-Jewish.
"It's very important to understand Jewish studies in today's world where so much that is Jewish is being attacked," said David.
Current events also raise demand for an Islamic studies program at Hopkins, Nirenberg said, but money for that focus doesn't exist.
"Obviously, Baltimore doesn't have a prominent Muslim community right now, so I don't know about the community drive for that," he said. "The Jewish studies program really grew out of a community commitment."