New Jewish Studies director establishes program awareness

Conner Howard

Conner Howard

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Kent State’s Jewish Studies Program is under new leadership this year, and the new director has set ambitious goals for bringing the program out of obscurity.

Chaya Kessler was involved in Jewish and Hebrew programming at Youngstown State University for seven years before becoming a part-time Hebrew instructor at Kent State two years ago. As of this semester, she is the director of the Jewish Studies Program. Upon taking this role, Kessler has dedicated her attention toward making JSP more prominent and appealing to every student at Kent State.

“I want to make sure people do know that we have a Jewish Studies Program, it has been here since 1985,” Kessler said. “I come from a long line of directors who did a great job, but obviously, the priorities were different. My priority is to be visible, to let students know we are here and what we are offering.”

To spread awareness of the program, Kessler has organized visits from several guest speakers such as David Ariel, director of Jewish Studies at Oxford University, who spoke on Kabbalah in the Kiva on Sept. 27. Over 100 people attended the speech. Kessler meets with her students regularly to brainstorm new means of programming that will bring in new students.

“We’re going to bring several scholars to really enhance (the program) and interest students,” Kessler said. “We’re partnering with Pan-African Studies, and we’re going to bring two scholars in the spring semester to talk about the Jews of the Sahara and about the absorption of Ethiopian Jews in Israel. We’re also creating a student advisory board for Jewish Studies Programming.”

Kessler said that as well as making the program better known, her other primary concerns were enriching the Jewish Studies curriculum, and involving the community in the program’s activities. She explained how these goals are inter-related and equally important.

“If we are more visible, and more students come and take Jewish Studies as a minor, we will be in a position to create more courses that will be more diverse offerings for the Jewish Studies minor that will draw different kinds of students into this,” Kessler said.

The Jewish Studies Program offers courses from the history, philosophy and women’s studies departments, but Kessler hopes that increased enrollment will further expand available courses.

Kessler has made an effort to involve the local Jewish community in the Jewish Studies program. She is working closely with Hillel at Kent State by coordinating JSP courses out of the Cohn Jewish Student Center.

“Another part of it is to reach out to the Jewish community in the area,” Kessler said. “No program is an island.”

In a statement from Ricky Marcus, a representative of Hillel at Kent State, the organization expressed gratitude for Kessler’s partnership.

“Hillel at Kent State enjoys a great relationship with both the university and the Jewish Studies Program,” Marcus said in an e-mail. “It’s a win-win situation for the students and the community when we partner with Chaya and the Jewish Studies Program to offer better and more frequent programs with Jewish content on campus.”

Marc Frankel, a sophomore political science major with a minor in Jewish Studies, reacted favorably to Kessler’s dedication to improving the Jewish Studies Program, namely the informational events she has organized.

“I think she’s doing them (the events) very well and very professionally. She’s a very ambitious person,” Frankel said. “I’ve especially enjoyed some of the guest speakers that she’s brought in. She’s also been a very good advocate for a lot of the students on campus.”

Although the program does not offer a Jewish Studies major, Kessler highly encourages students of any major to consider the Jewish Studies minor, and is devoted to focusing and guiding the students who choose to take the minor.

“It’s a dream job for me, so I’m enjoying it,” Kessler said. “I don’t have a Ph.D. so I don’t have research that I would be very involved with, but I think my energies will be put into making this a great program.”