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Maxim D. Shrayer, a professor at Boston College and codirector of the school’s new Jewish Studies program.
Maxim D. Shrayer, a professor at Boston College and codirector of the school’s new Jewish Studies program. (Globe Staff Photo / Jim Davis)

BC adds minor in Jewish studies

Program a rarity at Catholic college

Boston College, a Jesuit university with a student body that is overwhelmingly Christian, is launching a program that will allow students to minor in Jewish studies, a rarity in Catholic higher education.

Although the first student who intends to sign up is Jewish, professors at BC say they expect that the majority of the students and many of the teachers in the new Jewish Studies Program will be Christian. About 70 percent of BC's 8,900 undergraduates identify themselves as Catholic; about 1 percent say they are Jewish.

Academic officials at Boston College said establishment of the program reflects the warming trend between Catholics and Jews set into motion 40 years ago at the Second Vatican Council and intensified during the papacy of John Paul II, who was the first pope to visit a synagogue and who spoke about Judaism in positive terms.

''The program responds to the post-Vatican II efforts on the part of the Catholic Church to integrate Jewish studies into Catholic university curricula," said Dwayne Carpenter, a professor of Romance languages and codirector of the program. ''But Jewish studies has now moved from its traditional place in Catholic institutions, which is a minor place in the theology department where courses on the Hebrew Scripture have been taught, to a program that is much more expansive."

Although many Catholic universities have endowed chairs in Jewish studies and academic centers that study Jewish-Catholic relations, Boston College officials believe the university is one of the first Catholic universities to start a minor in Jewish studies. The first such program was launched at the University of San Francisco 20 years ago; Fairfield University in Connecticut has offered a minor in Judaic studies since 1996.

But BC's primary competitors do not offer such degrees. A spokesman for the University of Notre Dame -- Matthew V. Storin, the former editor of the Globe -- said that university does not offer a major or minor in Jewish studies. Neither does Georgetown University, according to spokeswoman Julie Green Bataille. Georgetown does offer to undergraduate students in the School of Foreign Service a certificate program in Jewish civilization, and the university is contemplating allowing access to the certificate program for all undergraduates, Bataille said.

Boston College already offers other ethnic studies programs, including Asian studies, Black studies, Irish studies, Latin American studies, and Middle Eastern and Islamic studies.

''Islamic issues have become very popular in the academy in the last couple years and maybe have moved ahead of what might have been a natural progression for Jewish studies," said John J. Neuhauser, BC's academic vice president. ''But it was only a matter of time for Jewish studies. We find this to be a quite normal attempt to reach out to other faith traditions and to have them well-represented on the academic side."

To minor in Jewish studies, Boston College students will be required to take at least six courses in at least three different departments. College officials say that more than a dozen faculty members, from nine departments, are participating, offering courses in literature, film, fine arts, history, music, philosophy, and theology. The study of Hebrew will be encouraged but not required; students will also be eligible to participate in a study-abroad program at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

The first student to express interest in the minor is Ariel Goldberg, a sophomore from Newton who said her interest in Judaism has unexpectedly increased since she chose BC over Brandeis two years ago, because she is surrounded by so much Christian faith. Goldberg said she had no idea that BC was contemplating such a program, but noticed it on a brochure in the waiting room at a dean's office and intends to sign up for it.

''Because there are so many Catholics at this school, I've become more aware of the fact that not only am I not Catholic, but I'm not Christian, and I've become increasingly aware of what my own religion means to me," Goldberg said. ''I realized I had so much more to learn about Judaism. And I think it's fantastic that it's being offered. Any school which broadens its horizons is doing a great service."

The program is being directed by Carpenter, whose research interests include medieval Jewish history, and Maxim D. Shrayer, the chairman of the department of Slavic and Eastern languages, who has been studying modern Jewish literature. The two say they began talking seriously about the program about a year ago, after realizing that there were several professors at Boston College who taught courses related to Jewish culture and history.

''This began as a grass-roots movement of the faculty here," Shrayer said. ''There was support, but also skepticism. There were voices who questioned whether a Catholic university should have a Jewish studies program, and there were also colleagues who weren't sure whether or not a Jewish studies program could be truly interdisciplinary, as opposed to being a storefront for teaching Judaism or things about Israel."

Shrayer compared teaching non-Jewish students about Judaism to teaching many American students about Chinese or Indian culture.

''We are teaching a culture that is vastly unfamiliar to a lot of the Catholic students, particularly those raised in suburbia and educated at Catholic schools," Shrayer said. ''This is to some extent an experiment, but, if it takes off, we'll have symposia here and conduct research and so on."

Boston College faculty said they did not seek advice or sponsorship from Jewish community organizations because they wanted to make it clear that the venture would be academic and not advocacy.

''We wanted to underscore the fact that this is a fundamentally academic program, an intellectual enterprise, functioning within the context of a university curriculum, and while we will certainly utilize resources outside of BC, the various Jewish agencies were not part of the actual planning," Carpenter said.

Michael Paulson can be reached at mpaulson@globe.com.

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