The new director of the Jewish American Studies minor at Montclair State University said she aims to attract more non-Jewish students to the minor and refocus the coursework on the program’s uniquely American approach to the field.
Talya Schwarzer began her tenure in September, leading a program begun in 2009. She succeeds Ron Hollander, who had taken over from founders Jaime Grinberg and Michael Cogan.
Schwarzer, who holds a master’s degree in curriculum and instruction from the University of Missouri at Kansas City, began teaching Hebrew at Montclair State when she moved to New Jersey in 2009. She has taught in the Midwest and the South in Jewish day schools, synagogue schools, preschools, and university settings.
In her native Israel, she originally trained to teach deaf students.
In a telephone conversation, Schwarzer expressed great optimism for the MSU program, which now has 12 students — all Jews — enrolled.
“Most Jewish studies programs at other universities focus on religious texts. We focus on the cultural, sociological, and anthropological parts of Jewish studies — the life of Jews in America since they came to this land,” she said.
To maintain that focus, she said, she will go as far as jettisoning from the minor classes that aren’t specifically American.
Hoping to attract more students, Schwarzer plans on offering more classes like the History of Broadway, which has broad appeal on a campus with a strong theater department.
“We naturally attract Jewish students. But with classes that have a more universal appeal, I think we could attract others,” she said.
In conceiving of the program, Grinberg told NJJN that he hoped eventually there would be an Israel studies program as well. To that end, Schwarzer said, an Israeli Hebrew culture course will be offered this spring for the first time. Because it offers a comparison with Jewish culture in the United States, it will be accepted toward credits for the Jewish American Studies minor.
Schwarzer said she has seen a rise in the Jewish presence on campus since her arrival in 2009. The campus has about 640 Jewish students out of a total undergraduate population of 16,000.
The campus Hillel, The Jewish Student Union, she added, “is much stronger. Hillel used to have three people at a meeting. Today they get 30. And last year, for the first time they held a protest… [A] lot of people came to show their support.” (It is still designated as a “small and mighty” campus.)
In November 2012, some 30 supporters took part in a “pro-peace” event to counter an anti-Israel demonstration on the Upper Montclair campus and show students’ support for a peaceful end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“It was nice to see,” Schwarzer said. “And there’s also plenty of cooperation with other faith organizations. Last year they held a joint program with the Muslim organization on campus. They are really trying to bring a tolerance and understanding for Jews in America to campus.”