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Friday, January 21, 2022

Keeping the faith at UW-Madison

Karl Marx was wrong. Religion is not dead, at least not in Madison where the UW-Madison has added new undergraduate majors in religious studies and Jewish studies just in time for the spring semester.

After the University of Wisconsin System Board of Regents approved the new bachelor of arts majors during its Dec. 8 meeting, both departments behind the degree programs said they felt relieved to be through the two-year process.

\It's a very long process. You have to have permission to even plan the major,"" said Anita Lightfoot of the George L. Mosse-Laurence A. Weinstein Center for Jewish Studies. The Center will administer the Jewish studies program.

Religious studies program Director Charles Cohen said he agreed with Lightfoot, but felt the process was more than fair.

""It's a thorough and time-consuming process, but we've been supported throughout by the faculty and administration,"" he said.

Though the two majors seem to share similar roots, Cohen said that the timing of the new majors was completely coincidental.

""David Sorkin, the [former] director of Jewish studies, had his office next to mine, but besides that, the fact that we got our programs at the same time was really an accident,"" Cohen said.

Cohen went on to explain the differences that separated the two programs.

""Jewish studies deals with the historical, cultural and arts of a particular people, similar to Afro-American or American Indian studies, while religious studies deals with a global phenomena--religion,"" he said, adding that, ""Jewish studies is not Judaism studies.""

Despite the contrast in content, the programs both share clear plans of what they want their majors to include.

The Jewish studies department would allow students to extend their knowledge of individual facets of Hebrew culture, expanding on the certificate in Jewish studies that UW-Madison already offers, along with offering an educational track, according to Lightfoot.

""There's one major ,but two tracks,"" she said. ""The educational track would gear towards the folks who'd like to teach in day and congregational schools. We've added a new professor for the past four years, which has helped to complete the major in Jewish studies and Jewish studies in education.""

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""I think the major is a big step forward, it certainly fulfills our goals,"" said Sorkin.

Cohen, who described the process of obtaining an undergraduate major for his department as his ""top priority for the past four years,"" outlined the five-point plan the degree program will be based upon.

Religious studies majors must have an introduction into an array of world religions, while having a deeper knowledge of two or more traditions and be able to research and publicize their findings clearly. Besides those basic requirements, majors should also be familiar with a variety of approaches in the study of religion and have knowledge and understanding of religious awe as it has manifested in historical examples.

Cohen said he was excited about the last two points of the plan since they took a step beyond any normal requirements.

The degree programs have received a high level of interest already, considering they have only been accessible to students for a little more than a month, according to Cohen and Lightfoot.

""Eight students have thus indicated interest [in a Religious studies major], Cohen said. ""I predicted 10 students in the first year and 30 by the fifth ... but seeing how we already have eight in the first month, my numbers seem a little low.""

The Jewish studies major is counting on some of the 25 students in its certificate program to cross over to the new major.

""The interest is very high. People who are not Jewish are showing a large degree of interest,"" said Lightfoot.

Both programs hope to play prominent roles on the national stage in a few years after they build a base of students.

""Our aspirations is to make this one of the best programs in the country,"" Cohen said. ""Worldwide religion as phenomenon is not going away.\

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