Alan Rosen did not look like the typical Duquesne University professor.
With his untidy grey beard, yamulke, and the traditional dark suit and white shirt of the ultra-Orthodox, he stood in stark contrast to the 20 young, mostly non-Jewish students dressed in jeans and sweatshirts who comprised his class for the day.
Nonetheless, the students sat attentive as Rosen, a pre-eminent Holocaust scholar who lives in Jerusalem, lectured to them about the meaning of Jewish cyclical time in Shoa-themed works such as “Night” by Elie Wiesel, and “Maus” by Art Spiegelman.
Rosen was brought to lecture at Duquesne last week as part of the university’s Jewish Faculty Forum’s effort to broaden the school’s offerings in Jewish culture. The lecture was arranged in collaboration with Classrooms Without Borders, the nonprofit organization headed by Zipora Gur that offers teachers subsidized trips to Israel and Poland in order to learn how to teach the Holocaust.
Professors Mark Frisch and Matt Schneirov, who team-teach “Perspectives on the Holocaust,” have traveled to Yad Vashem with CWB, and studied with Rosen while in Israel.
They, along with other members of the university’s Jewish Faculty Forum, are working to establish a minor in Holocaust Studies at the school.
Only about 50 Jewish undergraduates are enrolled at Duquesne, according to the website of Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life, but there is an interest in Jewish and Holocaust studies in the non-Jewish student body as well.
“We [currently] are teaching two courses; one on anti-Semitism and one on the Holocaust,” said Frisch, associate professor of modern languages. “Most of the students who take the courses are not Jewish.”
Jewish studies and Holocaust courses have been offered at Duquesne for several years, thanks to the efforts of several faculty members trying to fill what they perceived as a void at the university.
“This started about five years ago,” said Schneirov, associate professor of sociology. “Dan Burston, of the psychology department, got together five or six mainly Jewish faculty members, and one non-Jewish member from the theology department, and formed the Jewish Faculty Forum. We wanted to provide a place where Jewish faculty could discuss the various things they’re interested in, in regard to Jewish civilization and culture, and to bring in speakers from the area and nationally.”
Soon after its inception, the Jewish Faculty Forum brought a Kristallnacht commemoration to campus, and then began developing some courses.
“We decided to develop an interdisciplinary course on anti-Semitism,” Schneirov said. “We offered it for the first time about three years ago, and it was very well-attended. We had about 45 students, mostly Catholic students, with about a quarter of the class Jewish. The interaction was interesting and challenging. Out of that came the Jewish student organization that is now affiliated with Hillel.”
The following year, the Jewish Faculty Forum received a grant for an interdisciplinary course on the Holocaust. That course now is offered each year, and has been very popular, according to Schneirov.
Currently, a three-week study abroad class is being planned for May 2013, in which a group of students will travel to Israel to study at Yad Vashem and to travel around the country, said Frisch.
At least two more classes would need to be offered in order to create either a Jewish studies or Holocaust studies minor. While the Jewish Faculty Forum would prefer to offer a minor in Jewish studies, it has faced the obstacle of insufficient faculty resources.
“We don’t have enough Jewish faculty or support from the administration to free up Jewish faculty to teach these courses,” Schneirov said. “Tentatively, we have decided that it is more feasible to do a Holocaust studies minor. It’s more practical.”
While some of the faculty has “qualms about a Catholic University teaching Jewish culture through the Holocaust,” they believe it may be easier to obtain professors to teach courses in the Holocaust as opposed to Jewish studies, Schneirov said.
The Jewish Faculty Forum has Duquesne’s “solid support” to bring Holocaust education to the school, Schneirov said, noting that the university helped to fund the faculty trips to Israel and Poland, and helped bring Rosen in to lecture.
“On some level, they are committed to support our efforts,” he added. “Conceptually, we have a plan on how to get a Holocaust studies minor. So far, it looks like we are on track.”
(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)