Mazel tov

UB's Institute of Jewish Thought and Heritage to become official department

The Spectrum

UB's undergraduate Jewish studies major is scheduled to become a full-fledged department in fall 2013.

Five years earlier, the Institute of Jewish Thought and Heritage became a multidisciplinary research and academic degree-granting program. Its mission is to foster knowledge, inquiry and scholarly excellence to better understand Judaism.

The department will offer various degree options and courses.

Dr. Richard Cohen, director of the Institute of Jewish Thought and Heritage, was one of the visionaries and creators of the program back in 2008. Eager to return back to his home on the East Coast after teaching Jewish Studies at the University of North Carolina in Charlotte for 14 years, he was hired to direct the new program at UB.

According to Cohen, the program's goal is to teach what Judaism is in an academic and scholarly context and to provide a better understanding of Judaism.

"This is not just a program for Jews," Cohen said. "We don't identify our students by religion. Nobody does that at the university. It is simply to provide a more objective account of Judaism."

Christianity was founded on many Jewish principles and the major Christian characters were originally Jewish, according to Cohen. He also said Islam was enormously influenced by Judaism, as Jews appear in the Quran.

Marla Segol, undergraduate adviser for the institute and an associate professor in UB's Department of English, feels the program fits into the university's notion of what liberal arts is and what it's for. She agrees that students of all different backgrounds and beliefs can benefit from taking any of the courses offered in the program.

"If you are interested in the history of religions, then this is a good place to start," Segol said. "I have a number of Christian students taking my classes because they want to understand what happened before. They understand that the Bible is their book, and they think of the Hebrew Bible as their book, too, so they want to know it as well."

As of November, there have been three different majors established within the program. Some of the students involved with the start up of the program will graduate this spring with degrees in the majors provided, according to Segol,

Students who choose to take part in any of the degree programs offered through the department can choose from a variety of courses that consist of various levels of Hebrew, History of Israel and Zionism, Modern Jewish Thought, American Jewish Experience, Jewish Mysticism and more. While the department offers a great number of courses, the program isn't extremely demanding. Many of the students do double major, according to Cohen

Amy Feist, a senior psychology major, plans on graduating this spring with a minor in Jewish Studies.

Feist believes the small-sized classes offered through the department provide students with an entirely different experience from the typical UB courses.

"The classes don't even seem like real classes," Feist said. "It's not that normal NSC setting where you're bored out of your mind sitting alone staring at your professor. It seems more like hanging out with friends and having intellectual and deep conversations about some common thing you've all taken a special interest in. The professors sit next to you and want to hear what you have to say. It's such a laidback setting. You get so much more out of it all that way."

The department is eager to get more students involved and it has made sure to ensure that all students are aware that religion is not pushed on any student who chooses to take any of the courses offered through the department. Segol teaches her students there are two perspectives to studying any religion - an emic and etic perspective.

While an emic perspective is from an insider's point of view, it is often studied so one can continue personal practice or give advice to others who practice it. An etic perspective, on the other hand, is an outsider's perspective and one you don't have to be a part of to understand.

"The idea is that anybody with a reasoning mind, and anybody that is willing to put in the work can get fruitful results from studying this material," Segol said. "We teach from an etic perspective, and [students] are welcome to use this information any way they like."

The Hillel of Buffalo - the campus center for Jewish life - has partnered with the program to create an internship opportunity for students who are partaking in the courses. Students can work in the community by creating a companion course through the institute and Hillel, according to Segol.

Cohen, along with the rest of the staff, sees a bright future for this new department.

"I don't know if you can convey the excitement we have, being a new program," Cohen said. "When there was only one person here, me, they could take just my classes. Then, we had two people here and we were then able to create a minor in Jewish Studies. Then, we had four people here and we were able to create a major in Jewish Studies."

The department has plans of establishing master's and doctoral degree programs in the field of Jewish Studies, according to Segol.

For students who are interested in learning more about the department or courses that are offered, information can be found at