Finding Meaning through Jewish Studies
When Lauren Kurland introduces herself as Director of Student Engagement for the UW Stroum Center for Jewish Studies, she often gets a puzzled look at first. This might be because the position—generously funded by a gift from Michele and Stanley Rosen and the Rita and Herbert Rosen Foundation—is seemingly the only one like it in Jewish Studies programs nationwide. Kurland’s position, which formally started in winter 2015, stemmed from the desire to create more points of connection among Jewish Studies staff, faculty, and students. In this role, she meets with students coming from different backgrounds and heading toward different futures to learn about their experience with Jewish Studies.
Some of the students Kurland meets are committed Jewish Studies majors or minors, while others may be taking their first Jewish Studies course because they heard something good about the professor, because it fulfills a general education requirement, or because it falls at a convenient time in their schedule. Over coffee or a walk around campus, she learns about these students’ backgrounds, why they enrolled in a Jewish Studies course, what they have found inspiring about the course they are taking, and where we could do better.
Kurland says, “I have the privilege of asking students where they find meaning in their academic pursuits and discovering where Jewish Studies can be present in providing that personal resonance.” Impressively, her paper about finding meaning through Jewish Studies was published in Gleanings, the quarterly e-journal published by the Jewish Theological Seminary’s Davidson School.
The testimonies she has gathered in her one-on-one meetings has affirmed that Jewish Studies has a special way of impacting students’ college experiences. One alum told Kurland, “Math was my major, but my Jewish Studies courses inspired me…I’ve sold back all of my math books, but all of my Jewish Studies books are still on my shelves.” Another recent graduate said that he valued Jewish Studies courses because “you can get a sense of the fluid boundaries of culture, identity, and how people dealt with those issues.”
Programming and Leadership
To further advance her goal of deepening relationships between students and the Jewish Studies community, Kurland creates student programming and leadership opportunities throughout the year. One example of a popular program is the Feasting with Faculty series. In the fall, fifteen students dined with Tamar Benzikry, a guest instructor who taught “Graphic Novels and Jewish Memory” in the spring. In the spring, Kurland helped a student committee develop a lively and well-attended dinner with UW’s trio of Hebrew professors, Naomi Sokoloff, Hadar Khazzam-Horovitz, and Tovi Romano. She also has initiated a “Tea with Faculty” program designed for Access students.
In 2015-2016, Kurland will guide the newly launched Jewish Studies Advisory Council to provide important student input on curriculum and programming. Alongside Program Coordinator Rebecca Steelman (UW Class of 2014), she will supervise the first ever cohort of three Stroum Center Interns, and is reaching out to alumni to offer Jewish Studies support in their lives post-graduation.
Utilizing her background in curriculum development, Kurland is working closely with Prof. Mika Ahuvia, UW Jewish Studies’ newly appointed Undergraduate Student Adviser, and the Stroum Center’s Curriculum Committee to rethink major and minor requirements to better address the needs of today’s students. She also meets regularly with advisers from other departments across campus to help develop courses that can engage students from diverse backgrounds.
Reflecting on her busy first few quarters at the UW, Kurland says, “The students whom I have met are grateful to Jewish Studies faculty for their passion, their presence, and their commitment to good pedagogy. They are also grateful to the Stroum Center for considering students’ needs beyond the classroom and focusing more holistically on student experiences with Jewish Studies. I am excited about continuing this work to create an even stronger community both inside the classroom and beyond.
With a dynamic professional like Lauren Kurland now occupying this unique staff position, the Stroum Center is assured of a greatly enhanced ability to impact individual students going forward.
Editor’s Note: A version of this article appeared in the Stroum Center’s Fall 2015 Newsletter. You can view the PDF version of the full newsletter here!
Links for Further Exploration
- Finding Meaning in Jewish Studies at College by Lauren Kurland (Gleanings, Fall 2015)
- Feasting with Faculty featuring Mika Ahuva and Sarah Stroup, March 2nd