Judaic Studies Dept. at BU looks toward the future

By: Rabbi Rachel Esserman

 Bat-Ami Bar On
Bat-Ami Bar On, the chairwoman of the Judaic Studies Department at Binghamton University, is excited about the future of her department. In addition to new course selections and reorganization plans, the Judaic Studies Department has received an American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise grant, which will support the scholar Sariel Birnbaum, a film researcher who specializes in Middle Eastern cinema, during the upcoming academic year.
“In fall 2011, [Birnbaum] will offer a course on Jewish and Israeli cinematic images that will be accompanied by an open-to-the-public film series,” Bar On said in an e-mail interview. “[The] Political Science [Department] also has an AICE scholar for 2011-12, Maoz Rosenthal, and his courses are cross-listed with Judaic Studies.”
With this influx of talent, Bar On dreams that some day her department will be able to offer an Israeli studies program. However, that doesn’t mean she’s deserting the current Judaic studies program. Instead, Bar On hopes to incorporate both aspects. Her planning is done on a practical level. “When it comes to vision, I try to imagine the future in a realistic fashion and so am working on developing aspects of Judaic studies at Binghamton University within the constraints that we have,” she said. “Chief among these constraints are the size of the department’s core faculty and its budget for lecturers and adjuncts. Within them, Judaic studies is starting to develop along the traditional area of Jewish history, the area of Jewish thought and a new area focusing on Jewish institutions and politics. It is also developing a five-years program that offers students the opportunity to get a Judaic studies B.A. and an M.P.A. in five years.”
Bar On noted that the department is small and she doesn’t expect that to change. However, by using other resources available at the university, she has been able to expand the course listing. “There are now three faculty outside of the department who are formally affiliated with it, additional faculty willing to cross-list courses and talent in the community that the department can work with in order to have a diverse and exciting curriculum for its majors and minors; students interested in Judaic studies, Hebrew and Yiddish courses; as well as community members interested in taking courses at the university,” she said.
She is very excited about the courses being offered this fall. “New additions to the fall 2011 curriculum include John Krazno’s ‘Public Opinion,’ Neil Christian Pages’ ‘Literature of Exile’ and Liz Rosenberg’s ‘Writing About the Family,’ all of which are cross-listed with Judaic Studies from other departments,” Bar On explained. “New courses originating in the department include Rivky Slonim’s ‘Jewish Biomedical Ethics,’ Allan Arkush’s ‘Synagogue and State,’ Randy Friedman’s ‘Buber and His Jewish Critics,’ Tziona Szajman’s ‘Modern Midrash’ and Orly Shoer’s Hebrew course ‘Current Events.’” (Additional information about fall 2011 can be found at www2.binghamton.edu/judaic-studies/courses.html.)
Although the department focuses on academics, it also participates in projects for the university community and the larger Jewish community. “The department cooperates with Hillel at Binghamton and has good working relations with Chabad,” Bar On explained. “The department also has a few funds that allow it to offer extracurricular programs to students and to the community. The department has brought speakers of interest to students and the community alike in the past. The Anita Diamant talk in April 2011 is an example of a program that bridges between Judaic Studies, the university community and the community-at-large. Given the success of this event, Judaic Studies is thinking of a similarly big event” in the future.
Bar On’s background was not originally in Judaic studies. Her B.A. and M.A. from Tel-Aviv University were in philosophy (with an additional undergraduate major in sociology), as was her Ph.D. from Ohio State University. “My specialization within philosophy is in political theory and within that my focus has been on political violence (so I study war and terrorism) and democracy,” she noted. “The person whose work has helped me think about these topics most productively has been Hannah Arendt, and I have remained aware of the fact that among her biographically attractive features for me is that she is Jewish, but in a very untraditional way.”
Bar On is grateful for the support she receives from the university. “I want to note that the dean of Harpur College, Don Nieman, has been very supportive of Judaic Studies and its plans for reorganization and restructuring,” she added. “He is committed to help the department in many ways, for example, he supports the Judaic Studies AICE scholar with a matching grant, his office took major responsibility for organizing the Anita Diamant event, and is helping with the formation of a Judaic Studies Alumni Council, which we all hope to be able to launch by next fall.”