Judaic studies class bridges history, future
by Netta S. Eisler
??"This is my heritage, and it's important to me that it have a place in my college curriculum." ?? "This man was a civil servant," observed a student, putting himself in the shoes of a hypothetical German Jew at the enactment of the Nuremberg laws. "He would trust his fate to the legal system." "He had fought in WWI, and thought of himself as a German, not a Jew. He'd stay and fight for his rights," another added. "And he'd probably lose the fight and die in a death camp," was a quiet comment. Group members nodded. A connection had been made, and what was once just words on paper had become real. This fall, Jewish and non-Jewish Virginia Tech students came together to study the Holocaust, in the first in a series of courses under a proposed multi-disciplinary Judaic Studies program. Pre-course publicity said the honors course would "provide an historical account, a psychological analysis, and an occasion for philosophical contemplation on the Holocaust." In this small-group exercise, students received biographical sketches of hypothetical Jews living in Germany in 1935 when the Nuremberg laws stripped Jews of their rights. The groups predicted their characters' reactions. One class session devoted nearly three hours to videos of Jewish ghettos at Lodz and Warsaw, Poland. As the grim images flashed across the screen, the class watched in silence. Several wept quietly as the lifeless forms of skeletal men, women, and children were dumped into a mass grave, wailing infants were tossed like sacks from a second-story hospital window into the back of a truck, and children were wrenched from their sobbing parents and thrown into vehicles headed for the death camps. "What happened in the Holocaust was irrational, so any attempt to explain for them verbally will fall short," said David Barzilai, professor and force behind the Judaic Studies program. "I felt it was my responsibility not just to tell them, but to show them the Holocaust." "This isn't Hollywood," a young man commented at break. "No matter how many times I see films like that, I'll never get used to them," another said. "But I think it's really important that we confront these issues." That type of comment heartens Barzilai and confirms his commitment to bring Judaic studies to Virginia Tech. "When we sent out the announcements about the course, some of the Jewish students said that, for the first time, they felt they had a place here," Barzilai said. The Holocaust course attracted about 35 students with majors from history to engineering. An introductory course in Hebrew language and culture also was offered. "I'm a history major, but I really didn't know much about the Holocaust," said one non-Jewish young woman taking Barzilai's class. "In high school, our history books had less than a page on it. Everything I knew before this class, I learned on my own." One lecture focused on the Judenrat--the groups of Jewish leaders in the ghettos and concentration camps. "Why did they cooperate with the Nazis?" a student asked. Barzilai provided several possible answers--they feared for their own lives and those of their families or they wanted power or they thought by cooperating they could make things better for all of the Jews. Then, he challenged students to draw their own conclusions. "I don't know why they did it," he said. "It was a moral dilemma. You have to look at the evidence and decide what you think. What might you have done? This could make a good entry for your journal." How did Hitler institute the extermination of the Jews? "He had a satanic ability to manipulate people," Barzilai said, describing Hitler's ability to stir up the Germans so that the demands for action against their Jewish neighbors seemed to originate from the people. "I think the idea of a Judaic Studies program at Virginia Tech is great," a young Jewish woman said. "This is my heritage, and it's important to me that it have a place in my college curriculum. Just having a course like this offered connects me to Tech in a way I've never felt before." Two years ago, Barzilai approached university administrators, academic deans, faculty, and staff with the idea for such a program. Response from the university as well as from the Jewish and non-Jewish community has been overwhelming, he says. Support--in the form of contributions and letters--has come from individuals and groups, including the Blacksburg Jewish Community Center, Temple Emmanuel in Roanoke, and others around the nation, including the Israeli ambassador to the United States. "Your decision to develop and institute a Judaic Studies program comes at a crucial juncture in the history of both the Jewish people and Israel," wrote Israeli ambassador Itamar Rabinovich. "Your efforts also come at a time when nations are striving to promote multiculturalism in all of its facets. Students are being exposed to the diverse currents that have shaped society. This search for understanding can only strengthen the bonds between people and eliminate the legacy of misconception." A recent concert of Jewish music by the Audubon Quartet--who accepted no payment--totally filled Squires Recital Hall. Many of those in attendance made unsolicited financial contributions to the program. Deanna Colianne of the university development office described reaction as "an incredible groundswell of support. It's much more support than we're used to getting from people without asking them for contributions," she says. In addition to a $10,000 gift from Malcolm Rosenberg of the Oak Hall Cap and Gown Co. of Salem and $6,000 from the Roanoke Jewish Council, many small donations have been pouring in. "Judaic studies is an idea whose time has come," Colianne says, "and once we start seeking funds, I feel confident we will receive the support the program needs." Morton Rosenberg (BUS '45), now a Roanoke realtor, supports the idea of "an ongoing education process for Jews and non-Jews to understand different religions and to overcome prejudice." Barzilai struggled with his own feelings of prejudice in his earlier years. He lived in Israel until 1986, then spent two years in Germany researching the works of German Jewish philosopher Martin Buber for his graduate work. In Germany, he saw himself "as an accuser--in a way, as a living protest" to the horrors of the Holocaust. He wore the Star of David on a chain around his neck, watching the reactions of people on the street. A chance social encounter with a young German who asked "What do you think of us?" helped him understand that the pain of the Holocaust was not limited to Jews. "He also was suffering, and I saw we were on the same side," Barzilai says. He brings this understanding to the program he is trying to establish, and to the bridges he hopes to build. Judaism is one authentic avenue toward a life of peace and harmony, Barzilai says, hastening to include Christianity, Native American religions, Buddhism, Muslim--and others. "Judaism is only one part of the mosaic that we would like to create. Out of it, we would see the human face," he says. Alf Knobler (ENGR '38) affirms the need for Judaic studies because, he says, "many Jews have forgotten who they are."Knobler was one of only a few Jewish students when he came to Virginia Tech in 1934. A self-described secular Jew, Knobler says he experienced little overt discrimination at Tech. But he says he always felt in some way different or "special, because the world makes you aware that you are Jewish at all times." With only a handful of the more than 500 Judaic studies centers in the United States located in Virginia, Barzilai views Virginia Tech as ideal for such a center. "There is much support already here, and the center would attract even more." The 700 or so self-identified Jewish students at the university provide a foundation for a Judaic Studies program, which Barzilai says would attract more Jewish students to Virginia Tech. "The parents of many honors students accepted here write to ask what is available for Jewish students," he says. Because the university has not had an organized program of Judaic studies, he says, many of these highly qualified students study elsewhere. Barzilai sees his task as divided into three stages. In the first year, he needs to raise $60,000 to introduce the program. The second step, in the next year or two, is to fund a $250,000 operating budget and offer a minor in Judaic studies. Finally, he wants to establish a center that will offer a variety of issues covering all Jewish culture and interests. Robert Bates, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, has identified the Center for Interdisciplinary Studies as a potential umbrella for the program. "It's a dream," Barzilai acknowledges, "but I think it's a realizable dream. When I began talking about the idea of a Judaic Studies program I felt I had set a fire in a dry field. The people took the idea and began to make it their dream also."
??"This search for understanding can only strengthen the bonds between people and eliminate the legacy of misconception." --Itamar Rabinovich, Israeli ambassador
Virginia Tech Magazine Volume 17, Number 2 Winter 1995