The Serling Institute for Jewish Studies and its unique minor allow students like me to explore our own paths.
As someone who has had many different Jewish experiences, it is always reassuring to find a sense of community wherever I am. The Jewish Studies minor at Michigan State University has given me the opportunity to find that and more, making such a big campus easier to navigate.
I have gotten to know the staff and program while working as an assistant in the office at the Serling Institute for Jewish Studies and Modern Israel, which oversees the minor. There is no one way to be a Jewish Studies minor; the program is personalized for each student depending on their interests.
Students choose 20 credits from 39 classes that count toward the minor, with eligible classes going beyond the humanities to include other subject areas like business and entrepreneurship, making the program quite versatile.
The minor started as early as the 1980s with classes on anti-Semitism and gradually evolved into a full-fledged minor in the ’90s. Donations from Michael and Elaine Serling over the years have helped MSU grow the Jewish Studies minor and become the sixth university in the country to have an endowed chair in Israel studies.
My own Jewish background is a unique one. I have lived in three countries and several states and have been part of a small Jewish community in Idaho, as well as a Jewish majority in Israel. Therefore, my Jewish identity has been built and borrowed from many different cultures and practices.
I didn’t know that MSU even had a Jewish Studies minor when I first started school, but I happened to take a Jewish Studies class as an elective and had such a positive experience that I decided to add the minor. The Institute has helped me shape my own Jewish identity by showing me how many different aspects of Judaism there are, and that there is always going to be a Jewish topic I find interesting.
I’m not alone in feeling this way. “Minoring in Jewish Studies has enhanced my experience at MSU,” said Hannah Margolis, a Jewish Studies minor who is highly involved in the campus Hillel. “Whether it’s the small classes, interesting courses or passionate professors, I have gained new perspectives on Judaism in my own life and the world.”
Of the more than 600 students who have gone through the minor, a fair number have been non-Jewish students. Some found their way to the minor through friends, and others through taking a few classes and realizing they were already halfway there. At some points in time, the split between Jewish and non-Jewish students has been almost even.
“We prioritize undergraduate education, mentor and advise our students, guide and highlight their research, provide the most generous scholarships in the country to support multiple faculty-led study abroad opportunities in Israel, as well as research and internships in Israel, and form lasting relationships with students throughout their time at MSU and after graduation,” the director of the program, Yael Aronoff, said.
The minor includes courses on Jewish history and Israel, as well as finance and business classes with visiting Israeli scholars who teach topics like “Israel: Startup Nation.”
This variety extends into the study abroad programs, which are made accessible to all students through scholarships; many students are able to study abroad in places like Israel for free or at a greatly reduced cost, thanks to the support of donors. Cultural and intellectual events held throughout the year are often co-sponsored by other departments at MSU.
Jewish Studies alumni work in many different career fields such as law, medicine, social work, teaching and government, and some alumni have pursued rabbinical school.
The faculty make an effort to include students in the program itself through focus groups and surveys.
I spoke with Alan Shulman, a Jewish MSU student who is the president of SpartyPac, an Israel advocacy group on campus. He told me, “The professors are tremendous and have been incredibly helpful, not just in my own academics, but in the constant fight against anti-Semitism on campus.”
The relationships created within the Jewish Studies minor seem to be a focal point for many students.
The switch to online classes as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic was quite a surprise to everyone, but I can say that all of my Jewish Studies professors have been incredibly understanding and, like always, the lines of communication have stayed open.
Aronoff said the “number of minors continues to be at a historic level and rising, 45, with new minors joining even during the pandemic.”
Students can join the minor at any point during the year.
I am grateful to be a part of the Jewish Studies minor and would encourage anyone who is interested to contact the office.
Yael Eichhor is a student at Michigan State University and was the 2020 Detroit Jewish News Foundation Summer Intern.