MSU’s boom in Jewish life and culture comes as the result of decades-long efforts to connect Israel and MSU by the Serling Institute’s Board of Advisors.
Over the past 30 years, Jewish life at Michigan State University has experienced a renaissance. More Jewish students have started choosing the school, which today boasts a Jewish-friendly campus and is home to a recognized Jewish Studies program.
When MSU senior Ellie Baden, 21, was choosing a college, it was very important to her that the school she picked had a Jewish community and support for Jewish students.
Learning about MSU Hillel and that MSU’s Serling Institute for Jewish Studies and Modern Israel had received a large endowment and hosted a conference at the time, she says, were some of the elements that let her know she would be safe and comfortable as a Jewish student on campus.
“I visited campus and got to talk to some of the students. They mentioned both the Jewish Studies program and Hillel. That was wonderful to hear,” she says. “It just signaled to me that the MSU community as a whole supported Jewish students and Jewish academics.”
MSU’s boom in Jewish life and culture comes as the result of decades-long efforts to connect Israel and MSU by the Serling Institute’s Board of Advisors. The Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit under its leader Bob Aronson acted as a catalyst at the very beginning in the mid-1990s.
The advisory board sought investment by the university to grow its Jewish student body. Along with the increased passion of professors and alumni, MSU was made to feel more like home for Jewish students, explains Michael Serling, who with his wife, Elaine, provided a naming gift in 2018 for the program.
On Sept. 11, MSU will celebrate the program’s 30th anniversary with a lunch event at the campus home of President Samuel Stanley Jr.
“It’s grown dramatically,” Serling says of the program. “It’s really a force now, and Elaine and I are very proud of what’s been accomplished.”
Through the Serling Institute for Jewish Studies and Modern Israel, MSU offers classes in American Jewish History, Hebrew Language, Judaism, Israel Studies and Holocaust Studies taught by MSU professors and visiting Israeli scholars.
The Institute supports an Israel study abroad program, develops social and educational programming with other campus student groups, and provides community resources such as a guide on antisemitism.
The September event will reunite alumni and recognize the program’s contributions to the campus community.
“MSU is excited to be taking part in the celebration of the 30th anniversary of the Serling Institute,” says MSU Deputy Spokesperson Dan Olsen, who adds that President Stanley has said since his arrival in 2018 that maintaining a safe, welcoming and supportive campus community is his top priority. “MSU and the Serling Institute have been actively engaged in fostering a supportive academic and social environment for our Jewish students.”
MSU’s Jewish Studies program began in 1992, and Serling got involved in 1996, helping bring the program from a $18,000 budget and part-time staff to a $15 million operation with six core faculty, 26 affiliated faculty members and four visiting Israeli scholars.
Serling, who graduated MSU in 1966 and went to Detroit College of Law (now MSU College of Law) was inspired by a Federation-sponsored visit of 25 Israeli adults who came to East Lansing and connected with people in their fields. He co-sponsored a reception at the president’s house on campus, where he met with then-director Professor Steven Weiland.
“That ignited my passion for making something happen at Michigan State that was educational, not just for Jews but for non-Jews as well, about the Jewish people, heritage, about Israel,” says Serling, who was also involved in efforts to reinvigorate the Hillel at MSU.
“In those days, if a kid didn’t get into University of Michigan, they often would shun Michigan State and head for a more friendly Jewish campus like Indiana or Wisconsin, and we wanted to reverse that trend,” he says.
“We’ve done that in a big way because Jewish kids really thrive at Michigan State.”
Since its inception, the Serling Institute has hosted 28 visiting Israeli scholars and had 325 students minor in Jewish Studies over the past 30 years, with a record 56 minors in 2021-2022. Some 12,800 students have taken Jewish Studies courses since they began, with a record 926 participating in 2021-2022.
In addition, the Institute sponsors educational events, including lectures, book talks, an annual Israeli Film festival and lectures, and films about the Holocaust. The Serling Institute has sent more than 300 MSU students to Israel on faculty-led study abroad programs.
A Jewish Hub
Dr. Yael Aronoff, the Michael and Elaine Serling and Friends Endowed Chair in Israel Studies, came to MSU in August 2006 and has been directing the Jewish Studies program since August 2014.
“We started just teaching some Hebrew. We didn’t have our own faculty; this didn’t exist at MSU before,” she says. “Today, we are very interdisciplinary. We have faculty from 10 different colleges across campus. We tackle timely issues in an interdisciplinary way and with a Jewish Studies lens.”
Aronoff says having a Jewish Studies program to educate students has become even more important with antisemitism on the rise. In addition to all of its other offerings, the Institute has taken part in six annual forums where students share experiences of antisemitism, conducted training sessions for over 600 residential advisers and intercultural aides, and presented workshops on antisemitism across the university.
Since 2018, the Institute has expanded its scope, feeding into MSU’s strategic impact goals while also continuing to focus on the humanities and social sciences. More recent developments include developing tighter ties with other universities in Israel through research, collaboration, visiting scholars and study abroad programs.
“We think MSU is a fantastic place for Jewish Studies and Israel Studies,” Aronoff explains.
Ellie Baden, a Jewish Studies minor, participated in MSU’s faculty-led study abroad program in Jerusalem. She has also interned with the Institute, where she attended faculty meetings, planned social events and meet-and-greets for Jewish students and professors, and helped write a Guide on Antisemitism for the MSU Community 2022.
Baden says she enjoys being part of an established program with supportive faculty and programming that reaches into the community. Whether attending classes or social events, it’s always nice to see familiar faces.
“There really is a sense of community,” she adds.
She’ll be attending the Sept. 11 event to help celebrate the Serling Institute, which she says has transformed her time at college. “It has played such an important role in my experience, and I can’t wait to share that with everyone else in attendance and see people just appreciating the program.”
A Rich History
Dr. Amy Simon, a professor of Holocaust Studies and European Jewish History who started at MSU’s Serling Institute in the fall of 2016, says they’ve doubled their number of Jewish Studies minors in the last handful of years, and added more programming around antisemitism, with additional programs when an event in the country calls for it.
“We really see supporting our Jewish students in those moments as a big part of our job,” she says, adding that the Serling Institute provides a home for Jewish students in an otherwise big place. “Jewish Studies is a relatively small place with friendly, approachable faculty.”
Simon adds that she hopes the programs give all students a deeper understanding of Jewish history. “For me, as a Jewish person, it is very rewarding for me to teach people who maybe never even thought about Jews, maybe never even met Jews, that there is this long, rich history of Jews in Europe, in the United States, and also that there’s been terrible persecution, that this is serious,” she says.
“They come out taking Jewish history and culture more seriously, and also the history of persecution more seriously, which I hope can only help them to approach the world and people they meet with empathy. It’s just one avenue into that.”
Jewish students and Muslim students also take part in programming together, looking at the similar experiences Muslims and Jews have in the United States. “We have this special relationship with Muslim Studies that’s really unusual,” she says. “I hope it signals to students that there’s a place and a way to have conversations and be respectful without just jumping into politics and stereotypes and everything like that.”
Peter McPherson, university president from 1993 to 2004, says their team in the early 1990s decided it was important to recruit more deeply and broadly in the Jewish community. “There are a lot of wonderful Jewish students, and I thought more of them should come to Michigan State,” he says.
By 2000, the number of Jewish students from the state of Michigan had jumped, and the school was offering even more innovative Jewish programming. “We were very pleased and proud of the Jewish Studies program at Michigan State,” he says. “It was part of and parallel to our commitment to recruiting a much larger number of Jewish students to Michigan State.”
Public universities should be providing educational opportunities for everybody, he says, and also give students the opportunity to meet a broad range of people different than they would have known in their own communities. This kind of push for diversity results in launching more educated, sophisticated individuals into the world, he explains.
“So, I saw this as not just important to educate, to get more Jewish students, I saw this as part of the education of the student body,” he says. “And I want it to keep growing. I want those Jewish students to continue to come to Michigan State.”
Dr. Sherman Garnett, former dean and current professor at MSU’s James Madison College, says he was very interested in the program, which gave the university access to Jewish Studies scholars and wove academics together on important issues from the start.
“It’s one of the things I really delighted in being able to be a part of during the 20 years I was Dean of Madison,” he says.
Garnett was dean when the project to attract more Jewish students got off the ground, and says he has watched it grow into a positive force for Jewish Studies education and Jewish quality-of-life issues on campus. He points to the expansion of the Institute’s programs as well as Jewish Studies activities, endowments for Yiddish speakers, additional money for study abroad, interest in Israeli innovation and science, and more.
“All of these things that happened created a bigger footprint for Jewish students,” he says.
When Elaine and Michael Serling’s two daughters, now in their 40s, attended Michigan State, Elaine says they, as parents, saw the world was changing. The Serlings felt a need to help give students an avenue for Jewish exploration for generations to come.
“Michael and I had terrific ideas about being Jewish. We came at it from different ways, but this is the same idea, seeing how to get the generations to continue,” she says. “Michigan State was going to be a place to go for Jewish identity.”
With a background in Jewish education, she says she was eager to help bolster opportunities for Jewish learning, growth and camaraderie. “Jewish identity is so important, and Jewish pride, and being able to speak in a safe environment; we felt that was important, too,” she says.
“I know when I went to school there wasn’t a place to turn if there was any antisemitism. At least at school now there is a place to go; there is a way to find support and understanding. That’s a big thing to me.”
Bradley Isakson, who attended high school in Hartland, Mich., before attending MSU 2012-2016 and going on to graduate work at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, D.C., got involved with Jewish student life on campus quickly when he arrived. He attended Hillel events, went to Shabbat dinners, took Hebrew classes and studied abroad in Israel, in addition to interning with the Jewish Studies program.
Coming from Hartland, where his family was one of just a few Jewish families in the area, he says he was glad to have a welcoming Jewish community at his fingertips at MSU. “What was nice about being at Michigan State and the Jewish life there — I was able to get involved in that way I didn’t really have a chance to growing up where I did.”
Though he won’t be able to attend the 30th anniversary celebration, he says he’s happy to see the program continuing to expand. “I feel like the program has gotten bigger since the six, seven years that I was last there,” he says. “I know it still provides that sense of openness, attentiveness and sensitivity to issues.
“And I hope there’ll be a 60th anniversary I’ll be able to attend in 30 more years.”
MSU Photography provided photos.