RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — Missing a department head, Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) has been unable to offer Jewish Studies courses for the past three semesters. Now, the school told 8News that they finally plan to resume those classes, but they still need to fill that vacant position.
When VCU’s Judaic Studies chair position opened up in 2022, some colleagues — like Associate Professor in political science Jessica Trisko Darden — assumed filling the position was one of the school’s top priorities. According to VCU’s website, one of the school’s core values is promoting diversity and inclusion.
“VCU has really positioned itself as a leader in diversity in terms of universities in central Virginia,” Trisko Darden said.
However, for three semesters, courses focused on Judaism remained off the course list.
“University leadership has told me that this is, essentially, a budgetary issue,” Trisko Darden said. “But what I understand — as someone within the institution — is that budgetary issues are just about priorities. So the university is not prioritizing filling this position.”
Meanwhile, the school went on to teach other religious courses — including a class on “magic and witchcraft.”
“Jews have been left out of the equation,” Trisko Darden said.
When the Iranian-backed terrorist group “Hamas” attacked Israel at the beginning of October, Jewish culture, religion and people — along with the lack of related coursework at VCU — moved swiftly to the forefront of many peoples’ minds.
“There’s so much research coming out on the role that misinformation is playing in the Israel-Gaza conflict,” Trisko Darden said. “And I think our role as educators who do peer-reviewed research — who have deep expertise on issues — is to be able to say to students, ‘Look, this is what is going on. This is what is myth. This is what is legend. And frankly, this is what is anti-Semitism or this is what is Islamophobia.'”
In a statement, a VCU spokesperson said that Jewish Studies is a subject that has “long been a priority” for the school and they plan to resume courses this upcoming spring semester 2024. But — having watched the position remain vacant for more than a year now — Trisko Darden wants to see tangible action and concrete evidence that the school is intensifying hiring efforts.
“Registration starts in less than a week,” Trisko Darden said. “There are no courses on the books to address topics related to Judaism or Jewish people.”
In the meantime, the associate professor spotlighted organizations like Jewish Life at VCU and a new Hillel chapter as valuable ways to engage with Jewish students, but also channels to share the culture and educate others. Trisko Darden hopes the school resuscitates Jewish Studies courses as soon as possible. She worries that not doing so could be detrimental.
“The messages that are out there of hate and mistrust are just going to be amplified,” Trisko Darden said.
She let out a call-to-action, urging those who agree with her mission to voice their opinions to leaders and school officials.
“We support having access to knowledge about all world religions,” Trisko Darden said. “And this is unacceptable.”