As a Jewish student at Georgetown University, Sam Appel (COL ’20) was not interested in taking classes within the minor offered by the the Center for Jewish Civilization when he arrived his freshman year.
“Freshman year, I heard about the CJC, and I thought to myself, ‘No way I would want to be a part of that.’ I’m at university, and one goal of university is to learn about things you don’t know,” Appel said. “I’m Jewish; why do I have to take classes on being Jewish? I could take classes on economics, sociology, history of all kinds, [women’s] and gender studies, and so at first I thought to myself, ‘With all of these classes, why would I join the CJC?’”
Yet Appel slowly changed his mind during his sophomore year, after taking “Blacks and Jews in America,” a course in the CJC co-taught by professors Terrence Johnson and Jacques Berlinerblau.
Appel said he became hooked after studying parallels between the experiences of Jewish and black people, as well as being taught by Berlinerblau, the CJC director.
“I took ‘Blacks and Jews,’ which was a phenomenal class,” Appel said. “From there on, when you learn about a subject, that’s when you become grasped by it.”
The CJC has evolved from an unknown minor with no membership to being on the brink of enrolling its 100th member in under 15 years. The goal of the center is to create a space for both Jewish and non-Jewish students to study Jewish history, religion and culture, in concert with the rest of the world’s politics, according to Berlinerblau. With antisemitic attacks still taking place, such as the shooting in the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh on Oct. 27, CJC members choose to minor in Jewish civilization in an attempt to combat misunderstandings surrounding Judaism and the community that represents the faith.
Conceived in 2003 as the Program for Jewish Studies, the CJC has always been housed under the School of Foreign Service with its offices located in the Intercultural Center. After the CJC struggled to be fully operational in its early years, Berlinerblau, author of “How to Be Secular: A Call to Arms for Religious Freedom,” was invited to Georgetown in 2007 as a visiting professor to lead and expand the program with the help of administrator Melissa Weinberg. By the end of 2007, the CJC officially became a minor in the College and a certificate for SFS students, according to Berlinerblau. In 2016, the program relaunched, branding itself the Center for Jewish Civilization, as it is referred to by students today. The center remains a research unit and source of teaching within the SFS.
Since its creation, the CJC has been actively encouraging students to become a part of the program.
“We’re always trying to bring Jews in conversation with others. We have a course called ‘Israel and the Arab Spring,’” Berlinerblau said. “So if you look at our courses — Israeli and Palestinian literature — everything we do kind of looks out instead of in.”
Initially, the CJC spent thousands of dollars every year to cater events and have speakers come to campus. Speakers such as Tzip Livni, former Israeli minister of foreign affairs, and Tamara Wittes, Brookings Institute senior fellow, have sat on panels hosted by the center in the past. Yet the expenses yielded increased student engagement, as these events offered a place for students to convene and piqued their interest in Jewish studies, according to Berlinerblau.
The CJC’s aim is twofold as it caters to both Jewish and non-Jewish communities, Berlinerblau said.
“So, we are two things at once — we are a place for students who are Jewish-affiliated, or are Jewish, or have Jewish boyfriends or girlfriends, or just are interested in Judaism; we are a place for them to come. But we are also a place for people who might not have any of those interests to feel very comfortable as well,” Berlinerblau said.
Considering recent national tragedies such as the Pittsburgh shooting, the CJC strives to offer emotional support for its members. In the wake of the attack, the center encouraged students to attend an interfaith service held in Dahlgren Quad to mourn the loss of 11 Jewish lives.
Antisemitic instances have increased on Georgetown’s campus in 2017, according to the university’s Annual Security Report. The CJC aims to be a safe space during these times of trauma, offering the lounge as an area for students.
“The CJC is two spaces at once, and there’s like a balancing act, right? It’s a Jewish space, but it’s also a very multicultural space, and this is because we always understood Judaism not as something that is siloed but is in dialogue with everyone else,” Berlinerblau said. “We never wanted to ghettoize our unit; we didn’t want it to be just about Jews.
The center regularly schedules events that promote better understanding of antisemitism. On Oct. 10, U.S. lawyer and activist Abraham Foxman spoke about whether antisemitism is a clear danger to current U.S. society at a CJC event. Foxman serves as the head of the Center for the Study of Antisemitism at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York. The CJC also took part in the Stoltz Family Biennial Conference on Contemporary European Antisemitism on Nov. 7, in a further effort to provide more programming for the Georgetown community regarding the impact of antisemitism.
Growth: A Personalized Approach
Having limited membership from its onset, the CJC has developed a strategy to expand its student reach. As CJC director, Berlinerblau’s objective was to regain the trust of the Jewish community both on and off campus at Georgetown, after the program suffered a delayed start. The CJC offered approximately 20 free lectures annually that hosted speakers, offered free food, and provided a space for Jewish and non-Jewish students to congregate.
“Slowly the community began to trust us a little bit more. We rebuilt relations with Jewish communities like [the Anti-Defamation League], which honored [University President John] DeGioia as the man of the year last year,” Berlinerblau said.
CJC Chief of Staff Anna Dubinsky (SFS ’12), who oversees the center’s financial measures in addition to offering student support on academic programming, said she regrets not taking up the CJC as a minor.
“I’m sad I missed it as a student,” Dubinsky said. “I did not get this kind of personal advising; I don’t think I really got this close to any professors in undergrad, and I think that’s a missed opportunity, because not only did I find those people, but no one reached out to me.”
CJC’s personalized approach separates it from other departments, according to Dubinsky.
“All of our professors and staff members just actively reach out and not necessarily from the point of recruiting but just from the point of advising students and providing them with this really intense, really personal mentorship that I think is really rare,” Dubinsky said.
Though the CJC has increased in size, tripling from the 35 students four years ago to being five shy of 100 this semester, the personal attention each student receives remains one of the most important focuses of the administration, according to Dubinsky.
“Every single staff member knows every single student. Over the past four years we’ve tripled, but we still provide that personal care. It’s not just knowing their name; it’s knowing their family. We’ve met some of their parents; we know beyond their academic record and their name who it is that’s walking through the doors, and we want to know them, and we want them to know us,” Dubinsky said.
Multiple elements attracted Appel to the CJC. Appel cited the material, the professors, the administrators and the students housed under the center as reasons to take up the minor.
As the CJC nears accepting its 100th member, the center hopes to expand further by becoming a major in the college. Dubinsky emphasized that the real success of the program is more than just size.
“It’s not just about increasing numbers; that’s a great perk, but it’s really about the fact that what we’re doing is working because people want to be a part of it,” Dubinsky said.