Grant Background


Posen Foundation Program for the Study of Secular Jewish History and Cultures

Modernity is deeply associated with secularization: the rejection of the supernatural and of religious institutions as well as the construction of identities based on the natural world. Jews have often been at the forefront of these secular movements and, despite the persistence of religious traditions, are perhaps the most secularized of modern peoples. Side by side with European secularization, a distinct tradition of Jewish secularism and secular Jewish culture arose in Europe, spreading later to the Americas and the Middle East. Thinkers from Baruch Spinoza to Moses Mendelssohn, Heinrich Heine, Sigmund Freud, Albert Einstein, Theodor Herzl, Ahad Ha-Am, M.Y. Berdichevsky and Hayim Nahman Bialik (to name but a few) charted out alternatives to traditional Judaism. Some of these alternatives were highly individual, while others were collective. Some focused on metaphysical or psychological questions, while others were concerned with politics or culture, not least the various forms of Zionism. To understand modern Jewish identity therefore requires understanding all of these secular alternatives, since they posited the possibility of being Jewish without adherence to traditional religious laws and beliefs. 

The Posen Foundation’s program for the Study of Secular Jewish History and Cultures is designed to support the development of courses on the varieties of Jewish secularism for students in North America and Israel. It is estimated that at least a half of American Jews consider themselves secular, even if this secularism means different things to different people. The percentage of secular Jews is even higher in Israel. These Jews are heirs to the tradition of secular Jewish culture reaching back more than two centuries. The courses supported by the Program are intended to inform students about this tradition that may be largely unknown to them, but the courses are not aimed only at secular Jewish students: they are aimed at the student body as a whole, Jewish and non-Jewish, who may find this secular tradition of interest and importance in understanding pressing contemporary issues. 

The Program funds the development and implementation of one or more “core courses” in the history of secular Jewish thought and/or culture. These courses in Jewish thought, history, sociology, anthropology, or other related disciplines – or ideally an interdisciplinary course – examine the process of Jewish secularization over the past three centuries or focus specifically and explicitly on the secular traditions within modernity. The courses must be broadly conceived and not limited to one national experience. While examples of such courses are on this website, the Program does not dictate a single template for these courses. On the contrary, the Program is interested in fostering creativity in the teaching of this subject and successful applications must demonstrate such original thinking. 

In addition to the core course or courses, the Program funds peripheral – or more specialized – courses on subjects related to the core courses. The peripheral courses need to examine explicitly themes of secularism and secularization, not just cover secular topics, and applicants should demonstrate an ability to integrate these courses over time and make them permanent. The funds may also be used for guest lecturers or faculty seminars on subjects related to the grant. Finally, while the grants may be used to hire a lecturer or post-doc to teach some of the courses, the Foundation requires that academic programs commit some of their own faculty resources to implement the grant (the grant may be used to “buy-out” such faculty time).

Since 2000, when the project started with one university in Israel, the Foundation has worked with 36 colleges and universities in the United States, Israel, Canada and Europe, involving over 100 academics and some 1500 students. 

Request for Grant Proposals

The Center for Cultural Judaism invites grant applications for the Posen Project for the Study of secular Jewish history and cultures. These grants are intended to cultivate and support the interdisciplinary study of secular Jewish history and cultures within already well-established university programs and departments of Jewish Studies, History, Philosophy, Sociology, Anthropology or other related disciplines. Grants will be awarded to support the teaching of two to four courses per year in the origin, history, development, texts, philosophy, writings and practices of Jewish secularism. In addition, institutions may choose from our broad list of suggested topics and courses to develop additional courses in peripheral subjects designed to enhance the understanding of the primary interdisciplinary course in secular Jewish history or cultures. To be eligible for the Posen Project Grants, the primary course must focus specifically on Judaism as Culture.

Proposals for grants are accepted annually. The deadline for proposals for the 2009-2010 academic year is November, 2008. 

A number of grants of up to $50,000 each per year will be awarded for the 2007-2008 academic year. Upon review, these grants are renewable for up to two years at the discretion of the Center for Cultural Judaism and The Posen Foundation. 

An Academic Advisory Committee appointed by The Posen Foundation and the Center for Cultural Judaism will review the proposals, which will be judged on the qualifications of the university and staff assigned to the courses, merit of the course outlines and the secular Jewish content, the number of students served, and the size of the department or program in which the course will be taught. The Posen Foundation and the Center for Cultural Judaism encourage the inclusion of syllabi and required reading from existing approved courses in this area. 

The members of the Academic Advisory Committee are: David Biale, Chair, University of California – Davis; Laura Levitt, Temple University; Mark Raider, University of Cincinnati; Naomi Seidman, Graduate Theological Union; Susan Shapiro, University of Massachusetts – Amherst; and James E. Young, University of Massachusetts – Amherst.