Teaching | Teaching Committee

Teaching Jewish Genealogy – Background to “Academic Guidelines”

In 2007 the Institute set up an international Teaching Committee, headed by Prof. Aaron Demsky, Professor (emeritus) of Bible at Bar Ilan University and an expert in Jewish onomastics, to consider the question of teaching Jewish Genealogy at the university level.

As IIJG is not a teaching institution, the first question addressed was how to interest and encourage universities with strong Jewish Studies programs to offer courses in Jewish genealogy. As an alternative, the possibility was raised of offering advanced courses through the Internet, either directly or in collaboration with an institution of higher learning that specializes in distance teaching and confers university degrees and/or professional accreditation.

The next question addressed by the Teaching Committee related to the level of the courses envisaged – with possible options ranging from a simple BA course (1- or 2- semesters), through a BA major in Jewish genealogy, to a 1-year MA course within a Jewish Studies master’s program and even a full 2-year MA program, leading to certification in Jewish genealogy as a career option. Complex issues arose concerning the structure of these courses and the pedagogical materials required for each of the options. These could range from little more than a skeletal syllabus to a more detailed course outline, and then on to a complete package, consisting of textbooks, source books, bibliographies, pre-prepared tests and other teaching aids for the courses at every level.

Prof. Demsky brought into the Teaching Committee faculty members from Israel and abroad with a variety of skills and backgrounds, including curriculum building. Their interim recommendation was to strive for and produce the outline for a 1-year MA course within a Jewish Studies program, which could serve as a basis for reduction into an introductory course at the BA level (“Jewish Genealogy 101”) or, alternatively, for expansion into to a fully-developed 2-year MA program, leading to certification in Jewish genealogy.

As regards the presentation of the courses, the prevailing view within the Committee was that at the outset the MA course or the scaled-down BA course, should be taught as a “pilot” at a major university, in the traditional manner (lectures and seminars), rather than online through the Internet or some other electronic medium – firstly, with a view to retaining some control over the course(s) as they developed; and, secondly, in the hope that the initiative at a university of repute would resonate in the academic world and that other universities would choose to follow suit.

Prof. Demsky then enlisted the help of some expert consultants and together the whole group prepared “Academic Guidelines” for a rich interdisciplinary MA course in Jewish Genealogy. Inter alia these Guidelines focused on:

  1. Aspects of Jewish history, both familial and communal.
  2. The structure and evolution of the Jewish family, up to and including the modern era.
  3. Jewish onomastics: the development of given names and family names in different eras and communities.
  4. Jewish demography, including migration and settlement patterns.
  5. DNA studies, with special reference to genetic diseases.
  6. Methodologies for genealogical research and analysis.
  7. Genealogical sources and the ability to work with them.
  8. The languages required for genealogical research into specific areas.

During 2008, Prof. Demsky and his colleagues sought polled the heads of over 250 Jewish Studies programs at universities and institutes of higher learning across the world to test their interest in offering course in Jewish Genealogy and indeed on how to translate IIJG’s teaching initiative into practice. A dozen institutions evinced varying degrees of interest, ranging from incorporating units on Jewish Genealogy into already existing courses on Jewish History, to requesting a detailed text book on Jewish Genealogy and an indepth seminar to train their faculty to teach the subject.

In the spring of 2009, a major university in the United States expressed interest in offering a 1-year (2-semester) BA course in Jewish Genealogy. Thereupon Prof. Demsky and his Committee set about modifying the Academic Guidelines for either a 1- or 2-semester course to be given in the academic year 2010-11. To the Institute’s great disappointment, this promising possibility fell through in the summer of 2010, when the university concerned decided to close down its Judaic Studies Department, due to budgetary constraints in the wake of the financial crisis of 2008 and 2009.

Following this turn of events, the Institute actively explored various alternatives. It sent the Academic Guidelines to those universities that had evinced interest in courses in Jewish Genealogy in one form or another but none responded in a practical manner for various reasons, including the rigidity of their course requirements, a lack of qualified teaching staff and ongoing budgetary problems. The Institute also re- examined the possibility of “distance learning”, by offering advanced courses online. It came to the conclusion, however, that an ambitious, and expensive, teaching operation of this kind is beyond IIJG’s present capabilities.

As a result, in the spring of 2011, IIJG’s Executive Committee re-considered its approach to the whole question of trying to encourage courses in Jewish Genealogy in institutions of higher learning. As a matter of policy, it had until that point been highly restrictive in distributing the Academic Guidelines, for fear that if circulated in an uncontrolled way, they may be plagiarised or even stolen “lock, stock and barrel” by some unscrupulous body seeking to profit from them commercially or otherwise. However, given the objective difficulties in finding a university that was prepared to offer a BA course based on the Academic Guidelines, the Executive Committee decided in April 2011 to reverse the Institute’s previous position and to post the Guidelines freely on the Institute’s website, in the hope that they will be taken up, in part if not in full, by some as yet unidentified teaching institution. If the publication of the Guidelines does inspire academic courses in Jewish Genealogy and if others can benefit from them, the Institute is of the view that it will have achieved its purpose, at least in part.

Click here for the members of the Teaching Committee and its consultants.