At Jew U., less Hebrew

Brandeis cuts costs by cutting Hebrew major as students scratch heads

Hebrew is everywhere on the campus of Brandeis University. It’s heard conversationally in the fast-paced exchanges of Israeli students with thick accents and in ritual form at Hillel. It’s found on posters in the campus center and on the clothes of students sporting Brandeis apparel. It’s embedded in the Brandeis seal—which features the word emet, Hebrew for truth—and takes an academic role inside the classroom.

But faced with the increasing financial challenges of the ongoing economic crisis,  Brandeis announced in 2010 the termination of the Hebrew Language and Literature Major, beginning with the students of  the class of 2015, who began school this semester. The cut came as only one  of many faculty and departmental changes that administrators estimate will save the university $3.8 million per year.

Though students will still have the option of pursuing a Hebrew language track within the Near Eastern and Judaic Studies major, which also offers concentrations in Judaic Studies and Bible and Ancient Near East, options are now more limited for students seeking a  Hebrew-intensive curriculum. While some students are able to fill most of their requirements with the courses taught in Hebrew, the track allows students to take up to five of the 10 course requirements in English. And with one faculty member cut this year, just five Hebrew professors are left to cover the 14 Hebrew courses offered this semester.

“They were looking at programs that do not have enough volume in order to see if we can cut faculty from them,” said  Vardit Ringvald, the director of the Hebrew Language Program who has taught Hebrew at Brandeis for 27 years.

“So it’s true that we don’t have a lot of majors in Hebrew, but we have a lot of students who are taking the language,” she said. Over 100 students are enrolled in Hebrew courses this semester with similar enrollment for next semester. While some are simply looking to fill their language requirement, others are looking to explore their Jewish identity and connection to Israel through the language.

“One vital contribution to my decision to apply early to Brandeis was its offer of intensive Hebrew classes, a Hebrew major and a Hebrew minor,” said Doreen El-Roeiy, an undergraduate departmental representative for the major. “I felt that the Hebrew Language and Literature major at Brandeis University was something unique, a major that could offer me a flexible degree, which could be applied to many career paths,” she said

“For a school that advertises their Judaic studies field, it’s a disappointment for people to come and not be allowed to further their Hebrew knowledge through the variety of courses they used to have in the Hebrew major,” said Michelle Sinnreich. Sinnreich, a junior majoring in Hebrew, chose the major during her sophomore year after seeing bigger improvements in her fluency in just two years of study in the Brandeis Hebrew department than she had during the several years she spent studying Hebrew in a Jewish day school and during a gap year in Israel.

But despite student interest in the Hebrew courses, the University cut a faculty member this year along with the major. The change has made it increasingly difficult for the Hebrew department to offer all the courses they want for those who are still interested in studying Hebrew without the major.

“We have to compensate. And we’re trying. We’re very creative and we’re trying to do it,” Ringvald said. “But we work extra hard, extra hours. We take advantage of what the university is offering us in order to be able to really tell the students [they] can still have a wonderful program here.”

The department has worked to redesign the program so that they can still offer the same courses and provide students with the options they want. To avoid cutting courses from the curriculum, each of the five remaining Hebrew professors now teaches five and a half courses per year instead of only five. Certain classes that used to be offered every year are now being offered every other year or every two years so the faculty is able to cover all the original options. Some class sizes increased to accommodate all the students taking Hebrew courses within what is now a smaller department. 

While 14 Hebrew language courses are being offered this semester, including upper level classes focused on conversation and writing skills, Ringvald believes that the lack of students who choose to major in Hebrew is a result of the former major’s structure, which required students to take Near Eastern and Judaic Studies classes taught in English. Those classes include a foundational course in Judaic Studies and options such as Biblical Hebrew, Rabbinic Hebrew and Modern Hebrew literature. Though they often analyze Hebrew texts, such courses often serve as deterrent to students looking for total Hebrew immersion.

“Our population, their goal is to be able to function in the language. If they had the opportunity to count only Hebrew courses for the major, they would do it,” Ringvald said. “But when they have to spend a semester not taking Hebrew, but taking another course about Hebrew and content related to Hebrew and it’s not in Hebrew, they feel they might lose the fluency,” she said. Nonetheless, Ringvald understands the value of the content of those English-language courses to the Hebrew major. 

“I’m not interested in taking the Introduction to Judaism class. It might be interesting and fascinating, but my goal in learning Hebrew was not to improve my Judaism; it was to improve my Hebrew,” Sinnreich said.

In addition to the courses taught in English, Sinnreich believes the requirement to write a senior thesis serves as an additional deterrent to students who would rather take courses in the Hebrew language than spend their semester studying Hebrew-related content and writing in English.

“The study of the language is about intellectual and emotional growth. You come here because you because you view Brandeis as an institute that can offer you the opportunity to explore who you are through taking Hebrew,” Ringvald said. “Our obligation is to make sure that each semester you will explore this if you want to.”

And so, working to maximize the options for students interested in studying Hebrew, the department is focused on encouraging students to take advantage of the Hebrew immersion programs offered outside the Brandeis classrooms.

In addition to the University’s four-week Hebrew Language Summer Institute, students can experience eight weeks of Hebrew immersion at the Brandeis University-Middlebury School of Hebrew at Middlebury College in Vermont. This year, the Brandeis and Middlebury also announced a new joint study abroad program in Beer Sheva, Israel which will begin this spring for students who have taken at least two years of Hebrew and are looking to take a full course load of Hebrew classes. 

We’re telling students, ‘let’s think beyond [what we’re] offering here at the program,’” Ringvald said.

Though students and faculty are finding ways to keep the language alive on campus, the Hebrew department will have to continue to work to offer students the Hebrew language options that they once had and still want.

“I think Brandeis has the best Hebrew department in the U.S. with amazing professors and if we can’t sustain a major here, then what does that say for other universities?” Tali Puterman said.

Dafna Fine is a junior at Brandeis University studying economics and journalism. She served on the Brandeis Orthodox Organization Board during her freshman year and now works as features editor for the Justice. She is a New Voices national correspondent.

One Older Response to “At Jew U., less Hebrew”

  1. minda
    November 17, 2011 at 4:44 pm #

    are they funding other semitic languages? do they have latin, greek, etc.?

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