Professor worried about lack of Jewish studies being taught at VCU

No Jewish courses available to students since Spring 2022.
Jewish studies courses haven't been available to students since Spring 2022.
Published: Oct. 24, 2023 at 7:38 PM EDT|Updated: Oct. 24, 2023 at 11:28 PM EDT
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RICHMOND, Va. (WWBT) - As the Israel-Hamas war spurs conversations about the conflict happening in the Middle East, one local professor is stressing the need for more education, especially at her own university.

Jessica Trisko Darden, who teaches the politics of genocide at Virginia Commonwealth University, reached out to NBC12 earlier this week out of concern for the lack of Jewish studies being offered at VCU’s School of World Studies, where all the religious courses are taught.

“Our campus is an opportunity for students to explore diversity and all of its forms, and yet it’s lacking this critical bit of infrastructure that will allow students to learn about Judaism and Jewish history in the history of the Bible,” Trisko Darden told NBC12. “I think it’s a shame because we’ve done so much at VCU to promote diversity, equity and inclusion, but unfortunately, Jews have been left out of that.”

A VCU spokesperson says Jewish studies has long been a priority for the school, but adds there have been no classes the past three semesters since the department chair left. While the search for a replacement continues, the University says it plans to offer Judaic studies in the spring.

“I’ve been told over a period of more than a year that someone was going to be hired for this position, that a job ad was going to be posted, that a search was going to occur,” said Trisko Darden.

Currently, there aren’t any job postings for the role, with VCU citing budget issues.

The vacant position is the Harry Lyons Chair of Judaic Studies, which is part of an endowment to fund and support Jewish studies. But the VCU spokesperson says that endowment does not fully support the financial needs of the chair and School of World studies.

“We do have a written commitment and the creation of this program in honor of this individual and his generosity to the university, and I think it’s very important that we live up to those commitments,” said Trisko Darden.

NBC12 asked VCU where that money was going, but the university couldn’t comment.

Right now, students can take courses on Christianity, Buddhism and Islam.

VCU is also offering a course on “Magic and Witchcraft” under the umbrella of religious studies this semester.

On Tuesday, NBC12 spoke to VCU students about their thoughts on the lack of Jewish studies being taught on campus.

“Given the current situation in the world and all, it would be important for people to know about the teaching of Jewish studies, as well,” said VCU student Roshana.

“I’m Muslim. In my religion, education is a need, so I think learning new religions is very important, not only to expand our knowledge but also to respect each other’s beliefs,” said Ronda, another VCU student.

“I think all studies should be offered here,” said Tamia, another VCU student. “I think having a wide range of religious knowledge is good.”

Trisko Darden is also worried when the only source of education for students is social media.

Over the weekend, a video posted and shared by reportedly showed a recent VCU graduate tearing down posters of kidnapped Israeli children and saying, “What about the Palestinian kids?”

“What I would like to see is a lot more coming together and saying that we value learning about each other. We value knowing about each other’s history,” said Trisko Darden. “You can’t have that sort of dialogue or that sort of engagement unless you have faculty leaders who are able to shape that conversation towards positive, peaceful dialogue.”

NBC12 was told a Jewish course is coming this upcoming Spring, but there isn’t anything listed online and registration for the next semester opens soon.

VCU said the course is still being developed.

NBC12 also reached out to other universities in Virginia to ask about their programs for Jewish studies.

The University of Richmond, UVA, Virginia Tech, William & Mary and Virginia Wesleyan all told NBC12 their Judaic course offerings are available now.

“I hope that this will be a call to action,” said Trisko Darden.