As he becomes the new director of the Jewish Studies Program at the University of Pittsburgh, professor Adam Shear is making two basic promises.
He will keep things as they were, and he will move things forward.
More on that later.
Shear, an associate professor of religious studies, who has made a particular study of medieval and early modern Jewish cultural and intellectual history, officially took the reigns of the Jewish Studies Program Tuesday, June 1. He succeeds Alexander Orbach, who will continue to teach at Pitt.
Programs differ from departments at Pitt in that the staff of departments hire their own faculty and teach major fields of study that result in undergraduate and graduate degrees. Programs offer certificates instead of degrees and employ faculty from various departments to teach courses.
Nevertheless, Shear, a Washington, D.C., native, who studied at Yale and the University of Pennsylvania before coming to Pitt in 2001, says the Jewish Studies Program is growing.
This past year, Jewish Studies courses attracted 502 students, 88 alone in Hebrew, the rest in various other courses in literature, history, political science and film studies, among others.
According to Shear, the program also awarded certificates to 10 students in 2008 and 2009 each, and eight in 2010. He said those numbers reflect a greater interest on behalf of students to complete all the required courses to obtain a certificate in addition to their main degree.
“Before this we were looking at numbers like three or four,” he said. “We’ve had a big increase.”
Jewish Studies, Shear said, isn’t just for Jews. The program counts Jews, Christians and Muslims among its students.
“We don’t ask what ethnic background a student is; sometimes the student tells us,” Shear said. “We just have a wide range, and makes for interesting classroom discussion.”
The background of Jewish education among Jewish students varies greatly, from those who went to Jewish day schools and have visited Israel to those who never studied beyond their bar and bat mitzvas.
But how does a director keep his program the way it is while growing it at the same time?
According to Shear, his goals as director are to strengthen the program’s core offerings, the things it already does well, while also moving the program into new areas that can benefit the broader Jewish community.
For instance, the program expects to offer a visiting Israel Studies chair by fall 2011. That professor will teach a basic survey course on Israel as well as something from his or her own specialty. That will strengthen the program’s core mission: to teach undergraduates.
This isn’t a new idea, Shear said. He has been working to bring an Israel Studies chair with Orbach for a couple years.
Jewish Studies will also formally launch a new scholarship this fall for advanced undergraduates in the program, enabling them to engage in a Jewish-related research project.
But Shear and his staff want to take the program beyond the campus next year, and are looking for ways to engage in community outreach, as the program will serve as a resource for the community.
“That’s something we’re excited about,” Shear said. In fact, “we have some funds from the Giant Eagle Foundation.”
He said Jewish Studies is looking for ways to be a community resource without duplicating existing services in the community.
Shear was the unanimous choice of the Jewish Studies advisory committee, according to Orbach. His book on Judah Halevi’s Kuzari won the National Jewish Award in the scholarship category, which is presented by the Jewish Book Council.
(Lee Chottiner can be reached at email@example.com.)