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AJS 2014 Presidential Address

Delivered originally at AJS Annual Conference, December 14, 2014

Part of the lore in the Sarna family is that a very pious relative of my grandfather's, a man known in the family as Koppel Duvid, managed to leave Konin in Poland on the very eve of World War II. Somehow, though lacking much knowledge of any language but Yiddish, he made his way to London. Arriving, totally unexpectedly, at my Grandfather's house, he banged on the door.

"Ich Bin Doh," – I am here – he announced, when the door flung open. That somewhat self-centered exclamation of welcome and hello soon entered the Sarna family lexicon.

So this evening, in greeting you, I want to begin with the words of Koppel Duvid. Ich Bin Doh – I am here. As many of you know, that is no small miracle. I want to thank Rona and the entire AJS staff for the extra work they did while I was incapacitated. Prof. Pam Nadell, our program chair and my friend of many, many years, also stepped in to help and chair meetings. Many of you, in addition, sent messages which greatly cheered me. And most of all, I want to publicly thank my wife, Prof. Ruth Langer, whose decision it was that extraordinary means should be used to try and resuscitate me. Ruth's tireless efforts, continuing for months, made my recovery possible. I am profoundly grateful.

My topic this evening is in some ways related to pious Koppel Duvid's exclamation. For perhaps the most important thing we can say about the field of Jewish Studies at this our 46th annual conference is Mir Senen Doh – we are here – over 800 of us. Amidst a great deal of gloom & doom concerning the future of the American Jewish community, the future of the humanities, and the future of universities in general, we continue as an association to grow and to thrive.

Thanks to the generosity of our good friends at the American Academy of Jewish Research, and our friend and member Steven M. Cohen, we were able this year to survey our members. A sub-committee, chaired by Deborah Dash Moore, oversaw that survey – many thanks to them for their time and effort. You will hear much more about the results of the survey in the in the coming months. For now, though, I want to highlight a few interesting trends.

The first trend is diversity. Back in 1966, when Arnold Band, later a president of the AJS, published a path-breaking survey in the American Jewish Year Book of "Jewish Studies in American Liberal Arts Colleges and Universities" there was so far as I can tell exactly one woman in the field – Ruth Kartun-Blum, later of the Hebrew University – and all of the men in the field whom Band listed were Jews. Diversity, in those days, meant diversity of Jewish identity and practice, and in that respect the field was diverse, stretching from Orthodox scholars like Alexander Altmann and Isadore Twersky, to Lou Silberman, who was a Reform rabbi, to the Yiddishist Uriel Weinreich and the ex-socialist Will Herberg.

Over time, the number of women in our field grew steadily. In 1978/9, the AJS – then ten years old – boasted 114 women members, meaning that roughly 16% of the members were female. A few years later, in 1986, the AJS Women's caucus was founded to advance the place of women within AJS. Two decades after that, in 2007, 47% of the membership was female. Today, women actually outnumber men among our recent PhDs, meaning those who have received their doctorates in the past decade. Roughly 54% of recent PhDs are women and 46% men. Gender equality, in short, has finally arrived in Jewish Studies.

That said, our survey reveals that women have not yet achieved anything like equality in terms of salaries (that is true, I understand, outside of Jewish Studies as well). Female members of the AJS earn lower salaries in the university and garner less outside income beyond the university than men of their same rank. Even if some of that is due to differences in productivity, the extent of the disparity is shocking. To take the most shocking example: if you earned your doctorate between 1980 and 1994, and are male, you make an average salary, according to our survey, of $128,000. If you are female, your average salary is $100,000, a huge gap. Even among recent Ph.Ds (since 2005), men make an average of $65,000 a year and women an average of $59,000. We at AJS will work on distributing these figures to you and to the media, because I think that they could be helpful to our women members at salary time. Surely in 2014 it is beyond dispute that women and men should be paid at the same rate for the same work. In the meanwhile, were Sheryl Sandberg standing here, I expect that she would tell some of you in this room to "lean in," and I am glad to pledge that AJS will lean in with you.

I am happy to report that we have seen progress in opening up the field of Jewish Studies to non-Jews. In the early years of this association, as I mentioned, the field was pretty well confined to religious insiders --Jews. One of the early AJS conferences, I recall, was sensitively scheduled on Christmas eve. Moreover, Jewish ceremonies like reciting the birkat hamazon and the public lighting of Chanukah candles regularly formed part of the annual banquet. Then things began to change. Exactly thirty years ago tonight, in 1984, another president of the AJS named Sarna – my Father, Nahum M. Sarna – lamented what he called "the paucity of non-Jewish members of the AJS." "It is a curious and distressing paradox," he declared, "that the number of non-Jewish scholars of Judaica in the United States appears to have decreased even as the field has experienced an efflorescence and academic respectability. . ." " Our maturity as an organization," he contended "is surely a time for us to experience a widening of our intellectual world and a broadening of our cultural horizons." Well, it took a generation and my Father, alas, is no longer with us, but today some 17% of our membership define their religion as something other than Jewish (that includes one member who defined his religion as "cosmopolitan mensch" so he may or may not count). All in all, over the last thirty years, the percentage of members who define themselves as not Jewish – but something else -- has effectively tripled. Much more progress should nevertheless be made in this area.

Turning now to the range of self-identifying Jews within the association, we are today even more diverse than we were in our early years. In our 2014 survey, we provided Jewish members with five standard flavors of Judaism to choose from and as one might expect the bulk of members did identify with one or another of these: in order of preference, Conservative, Orthodox, Reform, Reconstructionist and Renewal Judaism. In addition, some 26% of members characterized themselves as Just Jewish. But the most interesting of all, at least for me, were the 152 members who defined their brand of Judaism as "other," and then took the trouble to write in what "other" meant. So we now know that our membership includes trans-denominational, post-denominational, non-denominational, and multi-denominational Jews (bonus points if you know the difference between those terms). We have formerly Orthodox, egalitarian Orthodox, modern Orthodox, progressive Orthodox, Reconservadox, and something called "flexi-dox" Jews as well. We also have members who self-identify as secular Jews, Humanistic Jews, atheistic Jews, lapsed Jews, and even OTD Jews. I thought that the latter might require us to make some kind of special accommodation, like we would for ADD Jews, but Steven M. Cohen set me straight. OTD stands for "off the derech."

So much for the diversity of our members. A second trend concerns the question of decline – is Jewish Studies itself, to some extent, off the derech? Has the field passed its peak? Anecdotally, we all have heard stories of declining enrollments, smaller numbers of majors and minors, and fewer employment possibilities. At my own university, I have to say, these disturbing trends are quite evident. To be sure, the humanities as a whole have suffered significant declines nationwide. Between 1966 and 2010, humanities degrees in the United States dropped from 14% of all degrees taken to 7% – a fifty percent decline. At Harvard University, the percentage of humanities concentrators dropped by four full percentage points just between 2003 and 2012 from 21% to 17% [Ibid]. At Louisiana State University, the Humanities dropped 5 ½ percent in just one year from 2013 to 2014. There is a large literature on why the humanities are in decline and when that decline began, which you can read during some uninspiring faculty meeting, but the good news from our survey is that in Jewish Studies the decline is selective and much less clear-cut than we had imagined. We asked the following question: "Compared with three years ago, with respect to your courses in Jewish Studies, which would you say best characterizes trends in course enrollments." Forty-nine percent of North American respondents reported "little or no change". 23 percent said "small decline." 17 percent said "small increase." 7 percent said "large decline." 4 percent said "large increase." Summing that up, 30% of our members experienced a decline in course enrollment and 21% experienced an increase. That is not exactly an indication of imminent catastrophe. Interestingly, recent Ph.Ds (since 2005) are slightly more likely to report increases in enrollments than decreases – a sign that they may have picked up secrets for attracting students that the rest of us might learn from. Also interesting is that the greatest reports of declining enrollments were experienced by those teaching at Jewish seminaries (48 % of Jewish seminary faculty reported enrollment declines). The situation at non-sectarian private colleges and universities as well as at Christian seminaries is much better, with somewhat more reports of increasing enrollments than decreasing ones.

To fully understand what is going on would require, I think, a different kind of survey – one focused on departments, programs and courses rather than on individual members. I am hoping that we can find funds for that kind of survey in the months ahead. But we do know some things anecdotally. For example, course titles matter. One of our members offered a course in the apocryphal literature which, alas, was somewhat under-enrolled. He cleverly retitled the course "Books Banned from the Bible." Suddenly, the whole room filled up. Problem based and inter-disciplinary courses likewise attract students. So do courses that sound relevant (the Arab-Israeli Dispute is a perennial favorite.) The bottom line is that most of us teach in in a competitive market place. Jewish Studies, comparatively speaking, has done better than many other humanities programs in that marketplace. While there are reasons for concern, there are also models of success. We need to study those successes and seek to replicate them.

For those of us who teach graduate students, the greatest concern about decline focuses on the job market. Where will our students find employment? Roughly speaking, some 40 freshly-minted Ph.Ds join our Association every year. A little over 20% hold jobs already or seek to become independent scholars or for some other reason have no interest in entering the job market. For the active new Ph.Ds seeking jobs, I have both good and bad news. The good news is that vacancies in the field do exist. An internal study published last year by the AJS based on our positions listings, concluded that "generally since 2010-11 the total number of positions listed and the total number of tenured or tenure-track positions advertised has remained relatively stable." We annually advertise about 30 tenured or tenure-track positions in Jewish Studies. But there is also accompanying bad news: some of those 30 searches simply repeat searches that previously ended unsuccessfully, and every year there are more job seekers in Jewish Studies than there are jobs. About a third of our members (35%) report that three years after receiving their dissertations, they still did not hold a tenure track academic position. When you look at recent PhDs, since 2005 in North America, that number leaps to just over 50%. Listen to what some of our members wrote in our survey: "I gave up." "Attempted to find a T[enure Track] or non-T[enure track] position for three years on the job market with no success." "After six years in a non-tenure-track position, I left academe for the non-profit scholarly sector." "Did not receive academic position, moved to work in new Jewish communal position," and so on. Some of our members are clearly very happy in their new positions, and at least one berated us for omitting "found other appropriate employment" as a survey option. There is the potential for a good life outside of the academy – who knew! Still, as we advise graduate students, we need to keep in mind that there are, today, many more job-seekers than there are jobs in Jewish Studies, and that is unlikely to change anytime soon.

What has changed is the growing number of post-docs available to students. Six are currently advertised in our job listings. This is a great blessing to some students who use their time as postdocs to produce publications and gain experience teaching, thereby making them more employable. But the rising number of postdocs is also something of a mixed blessing. Recent PhDs who are married often find themselves unable even to apply for post-docs, since their spouses are loathe to move for only a year of two [postdocs are not family friendly]. And, in some cases, postdocs, especially what I call serial postdocs, simply postpone the inevitable. Perhaps it would be more humane to advise students who do not find full-time academic positions within three years of receiving their Ph.D. degrees to seek careers in other places.

At the very least, let's not stigmatize the decision to move outside the academy by calling it "plan B" or the "worst case scenario." A freshly-minted Ph.D who takes a job outside the academy is not a traitor to the cause. Instead, he or she may actually be expanding the reach of Jewish Studies, building bridges to the larger community, and fulfilling an important component of our core mission: "fostering greater understanding of Jewish Studies scholarship among the wider public."

What of the future – will the coming crop of retirements open up new positions in Jewish Studies and bring back the good old days when supposedly there were more excellent jobs in the field than there were excellent scholars to fill them? Leaving aside the question of whether those good old days ever really existed, let me say that our survey does not provide much hope on this score. Some 53 North American members told us that they planned to retire within the next two years, and another 55 within 3-4 years. That works out to about 26 retirements a year, which you will recall is just a little less than the number of vacancies that are advertised each year: the field is more or less in steady state. In Jewish Studies, as in the North American academy generally, "professors are increasingly delaying retirement past age 70 or even choosing nor to retire at all." [Chronicle Review, Nov 21, 2014, B7]. The average age for all tenured professors in the United States is about 55 and rising fast, and at many universities including mine, more than 25% of the faculty are over 60; some are over 80! [ibid] Perhaps an improving economy and more generous retirement incentives will change this picture in the years ahead – after all, almost 350 North American members of AJS told us that they were uncertain when they would retire – but it would be unwise for those entering the field now to rely on that happening.

I want to conclude by offering snapshots of the field as seen by our members.

Our survey asked a question which read:


"Please remark about one way in which your area of Jewish Studies has changed over the last few years." Hundreds of you took the trouble to reply, and unsurprisingly many did not confine themselves to just "one" way that the field had changed. The replies reflect different views of the field and its trajectory. Some of you, as you will hear, feel good about the new directions that our field has taken and some of you do not.
"[Jewish Studies] has become more inclusive, more cutting edge, and more interesting with fantastic junior scholars."
"It has become more fragmented and politicized."
"It has become a model for other area studies and interdisciplinary studies, and it has also incorporated some of the practices and approaches of other area and interdisciplinary studies programs."
"Identity politics have taken over."
"[There is now] more dialogue with other interdisciplinary methods and research: race studies, post-colonial, cultural studies."
"Scholars do not know the classical languages and base their research on translations."
"The quality of students have improved."
"More ignoramuses have received degrees and positions."
"[the field is] more theoretically informed, more global and comparative in approach, more integrated into the broader university field."
"[Jewish Studies is] far too dominated by Israeli politics, donors promoting right-wing politics, [and is] not well integrated into the intellectual life of the academy."
"The field has become more diverse and vibrant, and larger."
"Too little creativity, less academic rigor and textual analysis, and undue emphasis on popular culture."


I could go on and on with these revealing and candid and obviously contradictory comments, but I think you get the idea. The answer to the question "wither Jewish Studies" is as disputed as the answer to the question "wither the North American Jewish community as a whole." In both cases, there are pessimists and there are optimists, those who believe that we stand on the precipice of grievous decline, and those who think that our best years may yet lie ahead. This much we know for sure: As we move towards the half-century mark in our history, the Association for Jewish Studies remains wonderfully diverse and delightfully discordant. We may or may not be declining as a field. But mir sehnen doh. We are still here. That is no small accomplishment these days. Thank you all for persevering.

Jonathan Sarna (Brandeis University)