Belmont University, which has a long history of employing exclusively Christian professors, is making what it says is the next logical step in furthering relations with the Jewish community. The university recently announced plans to hire Jewish faculty in its professional schools, which includes the law school, law school, the college of pharmacy, and the soon to open medical school, possibly as soon as the spring semester. Plans are also underway to consider a similar decision on the undergraduate level.
The announcement was met with mixed reactions from both the University community and the local Jewish community. President Greg Jones says while the move is viewed by many as historic, it is the result of long-term relationship building, “This is an important step for Belmont and for Judeo-Christian relationships in Nashville and beyond,” he says, “We have longstanding relationships with the Jewish community here, and we see the value in it, particularly in a time of resurgence of antisemitism in America and the world.”
As might be expected, there are critics on both sides. David Gregory, Provost and Executive Vice President for Academic Excellence, says the faculty met before the holiday season to discuss the process, “We are having uncomfortable conversations, which makes us stronger.” He says some are concerned about losing their identity as a Christ centered institution, and others believe it is an expression of their faith. “Some say, ‘Shouldn’t that be who we are anyway?’ If we are strong in our identity, we can be more welcoming.”
Jewish community leadership is taking a wait-and-see approach to the decision. As this first phase ramps up for the professional schools, the undergraduate faculty continues to be exclusively Christian. Leslie Kirby, President of the Jewish Federation of Greater Nashville, says this is a good start. “This is an incredibly important program for the students and for the broader community. We look forward to partnering with Belmont in the future to make sure they have the infrastructure they need to support new faculty when they are hired.” She agrees with those who say the move will help combat antisemitism, “This is why we focus on building bridges. If we want people to stand up for us, we must do the same, and supporting our non-Jewish allies is an important part of that.”
The connection between Belmont and the local Jewish community is hardly a new one. Gregory credits Pastor Jon Roebuck, Executive Director of The Reverend Charlie Curb Center for Faith Leadership, and Rabbi Mark Schiftan, Rabbi Emeritus of The Temple, with sowing the seeds through the development of the Belmont Initiative for Jewish Engagement, which began last year. “This idea grew out of the great work between Jon and Mark, and the belief that we can be welcoming to all.” Roebuck says the two saw a common need to create understanding through education, “We learned there is a lot of fear and misunderstanding between the two faith traditions. It takes time to build trust, and we’ve begun to create that.”
Schiftan says he can understand some skepticism in the Jewish community but looks at this move as a way to create allies in the fight against antisemitism. “One of the things I’ve heard from academic staff is that they had no idea they were being viewed as exclusionary. The provost is committed to setting this right.” And while the Jewish community tends to be very wary of these types of moves, he says it is important to take the long view. “The pace of progress may not go at the rate we’d prefer. But this is the most natural place to begin, with the Jewish faith and the Jewish community.” He says Belmont has accomplished what other universities have not yet been able to achieve, “Through the Initiative we are providing an opportunity to engage the whole community in study.”
Shaul Kelner, associate professor of sociology and Jewish studies at Vanderbilt University, says he respects that Belmont has its own unique mission, but stresses the importance of providing meaningful support for any new Jewish faculty. “The belief by Belmont that it can fulfill its mission through interfaith encounters is a good thing. But there is a difference between hiring a few Jewish faculty, and having a robust Jewish presence,” he says.
In fact, Belmont has provided a meaningful Jewish community for quite some time, albeit on the student level, where Jewish students currently comprise approximately one percent of the university’s student body. Ari Dubin, Executive Director of Vanderbilt Hillel, has worked closely with Belmont’s Jewish students over the years. “We have combined with students at MTSU to build an active group focused on doing things separate from Vanderbilt. We even have students involved in Hillel leadership,” he says. Dubin says Belmont’s Jewish students talked about feeling a disconnect between the university and their Jewish identity, and the university’s leadership responded, most notably allowing them excused absences for the High Holidays. He says the recent announcement about hiring Jewish faculty has gone a long way towards helping students feel included. “If the university making a values statement that all faculty and staff must be Christian, it is sending the message that they are merely tolerating the Jewish students. This change makes it clear that the students can now see themselves in the faculty and they can feel accepted as their full selves.”
When asked if the recruiting of Jewish faculty will lead to inclusion of other faiths, Jones says that is not part of the current plan, “Jews and Christians have a long history, like siblings, with a shared scripture. As a first step it makes sense to embrace the sibling with whom we’ve had a fraught relationship.” In addressing concerns about providing support and education for new Jewish faculty, Jones says the university is taking its cue from the Jewish students on campus, “We are looking at the dynamics and building off how we acknowledge the Jewish students. There are bound to be growing pains, but we want to make sure we do it well.” And to those on campus who worry about a move toward secularity, he says, “This is an important expression of who we are as a Christian university, and a deepening of a relationship that is very important to Belmont and to the world.”