From Park Heights to Towson
I gave a talk at the Eldersburg Public Library the other day, in conjunction with the Nextbook exhibit on Jewish songwriters, “A Fine Romance.” Just after I introduced myself as one of the faculty members affiliated with the Baltimore Hebrew Institute at Towson University, one of the participants noted that BHU’s old building on Park Heights Ave has been replaced with a parking lot. He did not seem aware of the next chapter in BHU’s story. I proceeded to fill him in, of course.
After 90 years as a fixture in our community, Baltimore Hebrew University closed its doors two years ago, in June 2009. Most of BHU’s faculty and staff now work at Towson University, which has added BHU’s three MA programs to its already extensive list of offerings. The Meyerhoff Library Judaica Collection now resides on the second floor of Towson University’s Cook Library.
The Baltimore Hebrew Institute, the body created as a result of the merger, forms the link between Towson University and the larger community. BHI schedules numerous adult learning activities and courses both on campus and off; provides scholarships to our graduate students, and supports the Jewish studies graduate programs at Towson.
As the first merger of its kind in Maryland’s history (of a private and public institution), this transition has happened with remarkable speed.
With over 2,000 Jewish undergraduates and a vibrant Hillel on campus, Towson University is a fertile field for the growth of Judaic Studies. TU currently has a minor in Jewish Studies as part of its curriculum. Prior to the merger of the two institutions, the menu of options for those interested in Jewish Studies classes was quite limited. However, with the addition of 8 full-time faculty, 6 of whom teach undergraduates in the College of Liberal Arts, course offerings have expanded and multiplied.
Undergraduate offerings for the fall of 2011 illustrate this dramatic growth. Students can take one of Dr. Barry Gittlen’s courses, “Exploring Exodus,” or “Exploring Biblical Archaeology,” or Dr. Susanna Garfein’s ”Introduction to the Hebrew Bible.”
With the addition of our newest faculty member from the University of Pennsylvania, Dr. Ben Fisher, our Jewish history options are more extensive. Dr. Fisher will teach “European Jewish History.” Dr. Valerie Thaler will teach “The Holocaust in Historical and Comparative Perspective.”
Those interested in Jewish ethics can go in several directions. Students may enroll in Dr. Shimon Shokek’s “Ethics and Religion in the Jewish-Christian Tradition,” or Dr. Barry Freundel’s “The Jew Confronts the Modern World: Jewish Law and Ethics.” Dr. Freundel also offers the “Introduction to Judaism” course at the undergraduate level.
As at BHU, we continue to offer Modern and Biblical Hebrew at all levels, with instructors Dr. Eyal Bor (modern) and Dr. Susanna Garfein and Heath Dewrell (biblical).
Our graduate students can take many of the undergraduate courses listed above; but we also retain our courses open exclusively to our MA students: Dr. Gittlen will offer Biblical Literature and Civilization; Dr. Garfein will offer a biblical literature course on 2nd Samuel; Dr. Thaler will teach Diaspora Jewish Communities; Dr. Fisher will teach Medieval Jewish History.
For our MA students in Jewish Communal Service & Jewish Education, we offer several professional development courses: Dr. Hana Bor will teach “Strategic Management of Jewish Organizations: Material Resources,” and “Leadership Theory and Practice.” Dr. Rebecca Shargel will offer, “Teaching Classical Jewish Text: A Developmental Approach,” and “From Vision to Practice in the Jewish School.”
Despite this exciting transition that has allowed the core academic mission of BHU to be fulfilled in a new home, the change process is slow and painstaking in some regards. Imagine creating a new brand-name where it did not previously exist, and educating the public (both locally and nationally) on a program in a university as yet unfamiliar to them. While the Towson area has been gaining Jewish residents according to the 2010 Baltimore Jewish Community Population Survey, it is hardly considered “close” to the center of the Jewish community. Some in the Pikesville area consider the 7-mile drive up the Beltway to be more a “journey to the unknown” than a 10-minute ride.
As a faculty member in the History Department at Towson, I’ve asked some community members to visit Towson for a lecture, and their expressions turn skeptical. “Right. And where would I park?” is the familiar response. It’s true that parking can be quite difficult during the business day, especially with the considerable amount of construction that has been going on for the last couple of years. But those who visit in the evening or on Sundays for special programs are often surprised by how easy parking can be at certain times.
Towson has given us a warm welcome; the administration and library staff, especially, have been open-minded and generous. We are hopeful that the Jewish community recognizes that many of our finest professionals at THE ASSOCIATED and its agencies earned their degrees and training under the auspices of Baltimore Hebrew University (or College, prior to the 1990s).
Should you, or someone you know, wish to take a class or two in virtually any realm of Jewish studies, please be in contact with BHI. The graduate programs at Towson in Jewish Studies, Jewish Education and Jewish Communal Service are still the only ones of their kind in the Baltimore-Washington Corridor. With state of the art technology classrooms at our disposal, my guess is that the 7 mile-trek will be well worth the price of gas.
Guest blogger Valerie Thaler, Ph.D., is Assistant Prof. of history at Towson University.