By Anna Shternshis
I was born and raised in a country where the combination of words “Jewish” and “studies” often provoked confusion, laughter or both. Most people did not consider studying the lives, culture and history of the Jewish People worthy of academic investigation. For years, I did not tell my former neighbours and casual acquaintances in Russia what I do, as trying to explain to them the profession of teaching Yiddish or Jewish history was awkward at best.
Now I work as the director of the University of Toronto’s Centre for Jewish Studies. Here, no one I know laughs when I say “Jewish studies.” Our centre has a beautiful office. The entrance proudly welcomes visitors with the large sign, featuring the word “Jewish” on it. I go through these doors daily and every day, I cannot help but get a little tickle from this sign. On some level, it still surprises me how many students of all backgrounds are interested in Jewish studies: Jewish ethics, law, tradition, history, culture, languages – all of which are disciplines that we teach and research.
Jewish studies has been taught at the University of Toronto, in one form or another, since the 19th century, and it has truly flourished over the past 20 years, with the generous support of the Toronto Jewish community. Very few universities in the world host six endowed professorial positions in Jewish studies like we do, and have such generous endowments supporting our graduate and undergraduate students. We routinely bring visiting scholars from Israel and host over 30 public events per year.
Our students are as diverse as the city itself – it is not unusual to fill the classroom with learners born in China, Pakistan, Mexico, Europe, South America and Africa. We try not to schedule important tests on the Chinese New Year, or talk about food too much during Ramadan. My colleagues and I often discuss challenges and opportunities that come with such diverse student bodies. In many ways, teaching non-Jews forces us to rethink our disciplines and approaches, which makes our work (already the best job in the world) even more exciting.
At the same time, I cannot help but notice that every year, we get fewer and fewer Jewish students in our classrooms. We used to be frequented by graduates of Jewish day schools, numerous Jewish Sunday schools, as well as young men and women that identify themselves as Canadian Jews. But now, these groups constitute less than 20 per cent of our student body. Occasionally, a Russian speaker reveals himself or herself as coming from a Jewish family, or, sometimes, an Israeli background surfaces. But this, too, happens less and less frequently.