By Katherine Moore, Associate Director, Columbia University Office of Public Affairs
Columbia University and The Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) celebrated the 50th anniversary of their joint dual-degree program earlier this week. The two-day celebration, titled “The Best of Both Worlds,” featured lectures and discussions about the challenges and benefits of combining religious and secular education.
Speaking at a gala reception on Sunday evening, JTS Chancellor Ismar Schorsch called the joint dual-degree “a quest for truth and faith in one program.” Columbia President Lee C. Bollinger remarked that “the U.S. puts a premium on not crossing the [church–state] boundary,” adding that it was therefore particularly important that university students have forums like the JTS, where they can feel comfortable exploring issues of faith. Launched in 1954, the program enables undergraduates to receive two degrees simultaneously: a bachelor of arts from the Albert A. List College of Jewish Studies at JTS and a bachelor of arts or science from Columbia’s School of General Studies. It is one of the most successful collaborations between a Jewish seminary and a secular institution in the United States.
Referring to the traditional separation of religious and secular education, Peter J. Awn, dean of the School of General Studies and a professor in the Department of Religion, said he was often teased by a colleague for belonging to “the only department in the University that doesn’t believe in what it teaches.” Awn went on to praise Columbia’s collaboration with JTS. “A secular university that does nothing but celebrate secularity is missing the point,” he said.
Still, he continued, exploring religion at a secular university requires a great degree of tolerance. “You haven’t really got good education until you’ve been offended, and seriously so,” Awn said, adding that one of the greatest values Columbia offered was the opportunity to have one’s worldview challenged.
Benjamin Gampel, associate professor and Dina and Eli Field Family Chair in Jewish History at JTS, focused on the problematic nature of embracing such divergent poles as religious and secular lives. “My first instinct was to tell you how indeed we live in the best of both worlds,” he said, adding that such a notion, however, was rendered complicated by historical perspective. Gampel said the two periods perceived as the golden ages of Jewish symbiosis with the non-Jewish nations in which they resided, namely Jewish life in 10th and 11th century Spain and in 19th century Germany, were fraught with instances of discord and even violence.
Rabbi Alvin Kass, chief chaplain of the New York City Police Department and a graduate of the program, said, “The program represents the essence of American Jewish life—the best of America and the best of Judaism.” Evan Jacobs, who graduated in 2000 and now works in technology, added, “It’s good that not every graduate works in the Jewish communal world. It allows for knowledge gained at JTS to seep out into other parts of the Jewish community.” The program’s golden anniversary coincides with Columbia’s 250th anniversary and the 150th anniversary of the Jewish Theological Seminary in Breslau, Poland, one of the first rabbinical schools to integrate secular studies into its curriculum.