Jewish Studies: the View from Europe

By Robin Nobel

Last month, reported on the findings of the Association of Jewish Studies’ survey of Jewish Studies with the headline decrying both the struggles of younger scholars and dropping enrolment numbers. The survey, although taking into account the views of over 2,800 academics, drew mainly from the membership of the Association itself and that of the Association of Social Scientific Study of Jewry. Both are learned societies based in the United States, whose membership – the survey also reveals – is 76% North American based. To further nuance the conversation, I will here add some findings drawing on the European perspective on the field.

In 2014 the Rothschild Foundation (Hanadiv) Europe, a private philanthropic trust that has supported Jewish Studies in Europe for almost 15 years, ran a smaller scale survey of its own fellowship alumni. Distributed to nearly 400 early career scholars active in the field, the survey paints a slightly different view of their field than that revealed in the American case.

Some of the highlights include:

  • An overwhelming 60% considered the greatest challenge facing their generation of scholars in Europe to be the shortage of academic jobs at every level.
  • Respondents also noted hostility to Jewish topics in certain countries, as well as the lack of institutional support and high levels of institutional isolation as key difficulties.
  • Half of those surveyed reported some involvement in their local Jewish communities, and half also described themselves as playing an active role in the promotion and preservation of Jewish heritage in their local areas.
  • Nearly 40% incorporate the Digital Humanities into their research in some manner.
  • Finally, most of the young scholars surveyed conduct their research into Jewish Studies in the UK, Poland, and Spain. However, this last point likely reflects the reach of the Foundation and not the actual distribution of scholars across the continent; for instance, it is known that France, the Netherlands and Germany are also strong centres for the field.

Comparing the American and the European models of academic Jewish Studies, it becomes clear that the pervading difference is the presence and absence of community. Where, in many cases, the American model of Jewish Studies offers obvious development opportunities and audiences for its scholarship in the shape of a strong local Jewish community, European Jewish Studies is defined by the absence or extreme depletion of a living Jewish community. While documents and objects might remain, in most instances the people do not. As a result, those involved in academic Jewish Studies in Europe are the de facto custodians of the rich cultural heritage left behind by the many Jewish communities that once thrived here but were either destroyed or dispersed.

Much more work remains to be done before we are able to completely understand and appreciate the national distinctions that determine the nature of the Jewish Studies both in Europe and the world over. Yet, one thing that the Rothschild Foundation (Hanadiv) Europe’s ongoing work in this field has made clear is that support for European Jewish Studies amounts to support for the ongoing care of the Jewish people’s rich cultural heritage that remains on this continent.

Robin Nobel is Senior Grant Programmes Manager at the Rothschild Foundation (Hanadiv) Europe, where she manages the Academic Jewish Studies and Archives & Libraries Grant Programmes. For more information about the Foundation’s support for Jewish Studies in Europe, please see