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Deepening Jewish-Christian collaboration

At institutes of higher learning, religious Jews and Christians are working together to preserve traditional values.

The Yeshiva University campus. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
The Yeshiva University campus. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Irit Tratt
Irit Tratt
Irit Tratt is a pro-Israel advocate residing in New York.

Results from a Wall Street Journal-NORC poll released this year confirmed that Americans are deviating from religious faith. The study found 39% percent of those surveyed said that religion was “very important” to them, a sharp decline from the 62% who felt the same 25 years ago.

A schism within the Jewish community appears to be emerging as a result of this trend. According to the Pew Research Center’s latest analysis of Jewish Americans, young adults are much more likely than those 65 and older to identify as either Orthodox or unaffiliated.

Thus, the Jewish community seems to be undergoing a split between those who embrace a liberal ethos and those attached to traditional values that conflict with that ethos.

Orthodox Jews do have allies, however. In particular, evangelical Christians share the Orthodox community’s traditional values and sense of cultural isolation. As a result, educators in both communities are working to strengthen Jewish-Christian relations.

Yeshiva University, for example, recently partnered with the Christian nonprofit advocacy group the Philos Project to launch a Hebraic studies program specifically designed for Christian students. First reported in Inside Higher Ed, those graduating from the one-year program will receive a master’s degree in Jewish studies from YU and a certificate in Hebraic studies from the Philos Project. Among the online or in-person courses available to students are classes on Jewish history and Bible study, along with a Hebrew immersion program.

The president and founder of the Philos Project, Robert Nicholson, stated, “The incoming YU-Philos cohort consists of nine excellent students seeking to enrich their understanding of Christianity’s Hebraic roots” and “by investing in the education of students in our network, Philos is equipping leaders to be future advocates, theologians and intellectuals ready to fulfill the organization’s ethos: To promote positive Christian engagement in the Near East.”

The YU-Philos pilot program sets the stage for expansion. Nicholson expects that the “partnership will evolve into a long-lasting scholarship jointly offered by YU and Philos” and that Philos would “love to partner in future programs that offer Jewish students the opportunity to achieve higher education with Christian partners and facilitate ecumenical learning between Protestants and Catholics to understand shared Hebraic traditions.”

While YU is not the first Jewish establishment to recruit Christian students, its role as a leading modern Orthodox school indicates religious Jews’ growing sense of the importance of nurturing Jewish-Christian discourse.

This presents opportunities for Christians and Jews to confront external challenges together. For example, YU is grappling with last year’s New York Supreme Court order that the university must officially recognize the school’s LGBT club, also known as the YU Pride Alliance.

At risk of losing public funding, YU maintains that the court order violates the school’s First Amendment rights. Evangelical Christians sympathize with the need for religious people to protect these rights. Through facilitating Christian involvement at YU, the school is better positioned to defend against attempts to undermine its religious identity. 

YU is one of several establishments to embark on religious outreach. Last year, Belmont University, a private Christian school in Tennessee, announced that it would start recruiting Jewish professors to teach at the university’s law school, pharmacy school and new medical school.

Previously, Belmont had only hired Christian faculty, and the shift in strategy challenges the paradigms promoted across colleges and universities, in which most student-led alliances are wedded to damaging ideological pursuits rather than religious values.

As Hillels on campus increasingly muddle their message to accommodate pluralistic demands and progressive policies, joint campus sponsorships and collaboration between anti-Zionist groups such as Jewish Voice for Peace and Students for Justice in Palestine are increasingly active. They seek to provide a path for various religious denominations to boost recruitment at school events and successfully lobby on behalf of the BDS movement.

Cooperative efforts between religious Jews and Christians enhance and help sustain U.S. support for Israel, which polls show remains an ideological touchstone for both communities.

Today’s campus culture also necessitates clarity in fighting antisemitism. Across the country, the organization Christians United for Israel on Campus is uncompromising in its advocacy for Israel. Christians are often among the first to protect Jewish students against antisemitic activity.

For example, in January, Florida Atlantic University (FAU)’s Owl event featured a table with signage declaring “Ye Is Right,” a reference to Kanye West’s antisemitic diatribes. This understandably upset the Jewish students at a nearby Hillel table. Dalia Calvillo, a proud Christian recently elected president of the FAU student body president denounced the signs. Calvillo, who said that hostility towards FAU’s Jewish community left her “heartbroken,” immediately asked the hateful cohort—none of them FAU students—to pack their belongings and leave school grounds.

Evangelical Christians and observant Jews are emerging as religious anchors in an increasingly secular society. As the marginalization of traditional values permeates U.S. universities, Christians and Jews must overlook theological differences. The broadening of joint educational offerings and displays of moral courage are steps towards meeting the foundational challenge of shaping our nation’s spiritual character.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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