Like me, you have probably flown many times in your life. Like most people, you also probably don't pay much attention to what goes on right before takeoff. But on my most recent trip, for some reason, I was struck by the ritual recitation of "Fasten your seat belts." The flight attendant demonstrated how to buckle the straps, but no one on a plane in the U.S. in 2010 needs that demonstration. So, as I sat there waiting to leave the ground, I began to contemplate the reason for this announcement and the many others that predictably begin each flight: Why does every trip still include this instruction before takeoff? To remind us that the airline cares about our safety? To protect the airline from liability? Are the airlines superstitious and afraid to alter this long-accepted protocol? Is there a federal regulation involved, or is it just that no one has reviewed the script in the past forty years?
Many of us were born after these announcements were first introduced, so they seem a bit arcane and irrelevant to us. Yet, when you start to understand the context in which they were written, it makes more sense. The installation of safety restraints on board aircraft began during World War II to protect pilots and their crew, and commercial airlines installed them shortly after the war ended. Over the next twenty years, as tests showed the connection between air safety and the wearing of restraints, the deployment of seat belts became mandatory. In 1965, the Federal Aviation Administration adopted the nation's first rules requiring airlines to brief passengers on the use of seat belts, including instructions on how to fasten and unfasten safety them, and when, where, and under what conditions the safety belt must be fastened. While the connection between seat belts and air safety may seem quite obvious, this was not always so, and it is only through this historical and legal lens that the seemingly meaningless contemporary ritual of briefing passengers makes any sense.
As a historian, I appreciate the importance of context, and even more so as a Jewish historian. The stories, texts, music, and artifacts of the Jewish people—all of these important pieces of tradition are layered with meaning. Though we can often get a cursory understanding of a text at first glance, it takes much more thought and analysis, an understanding of when and where the text was written and by whom, and an appreciation of what else was going on in the surrounding world, to really get to the heart of the text, story, song, or article of clothing. This type of deep study is the backbone of a quality graduate school education—an education that we are committed to providing here at JTS.
At The Jewish Theological Seminary, words matter; context matters. We strive to look at texts from every angle, to begin to approximate their true significance: to get beneath the text, beyond the text, and into the text to fully understand and appreciate it. At JTS, we hope to bring this focus, this attention to detail, this burning desire to uncover truths, both scholarly and religious, to everything that we study—from biblical texts to contemporary online videos, from ancient archaeological artifacts to modern poetry slams. Delve into Jewish studies on the graduate level and you will continue to broaden your knowledge of the larger context that informs the Jewish experience while also sharpening your understanding of the Jewish experience as a whole. This will give your incisive study depth, heft, and sophistication.
This is what I loved when I was a doctoral student in The Graduate School, and it continues to be a deep source of pride now that I begin my tenure as the school's dean. Surely this type of critical study can be found at any fine graduate school. But at JTS, you get more. Here, you'll not only have the opportunity to study with professors and scholars who understand and illuminate both text and context, but you will also join a caring, committed academic community that will enrich your learning and shape the scholar you will become.
The students who are attracted to JTS's five schools care deeply about Jewish learning and the Jewish experience. For many of these students, JTS is a place to find a religious community; for others it is a place to figure out how being Jewish impacts one's sense of social responsibility; for still others, it is simply a place to delve into Jewish learning at the highest level with others who share your passion for the material (though perhaps for different reasons). This diversity of perspectives, united by a common desire to learn and to make that learning matter in an intellectually vibrant, community-minded, and religiously committed environment, among students and faculty who care both about the learning and about how Jews live as Jews—past, present, and future—is the uniqueness of a JTS education.
In the 1950 movie All About Eve, Bette Davis plays Margo Channing, an aging movie star who experiences unwanted competition from a young, fresh, talented actress. As she prepares to confront her competition, she utters the memorable line: "Fasten your seat belts, it's going to be a bumpy night!"
Here at JTS, your ride will be challenging, but not quite so bumpy. The texts you read, the sources that professors explicate, the questions students ask—all of these will test carefully crafted notions and expectations, causing you to continually refine your thinking as your knowledge grows. At JTS, this unsettling learning takes place in a nurturing environment where faculty and administrators care deeply about that intellectual experience.
In the end, then, despite my skepticism about the need for safety-belt announcements today, most of us don't mind belt-fastening rules because we know that seat belts save lives, because they diminish some of the bumpiness and anxiety of setting out on a journey. At JTS, we provide the proverbial seat belts, but then we get out of your way. We don't assign seats, predetermine your intellectual destination, or steer your thoughts in a certain direction.
Just as being on an airliner (with seat belts fastened, of course) allows us to soar in the literal sense—to bridge the divide of distance, to experience new societies and cultures, to meet others very different from ourselves and to connect with those closest to us who live far away—so too does intensive Jewish study at JTS give us such opportunities. Students and faculty immerse themselves in Jewish societies and cultures of the past, delve into texts and ideas foreign to our contemporary ways of thinking, and connect with the parts of the Jewish tradition that speak powerfully to us.
So join us at JTS, and please, fasten your seat belts. I'm confident that you'll enjoy the journey.
Dr. Shuly Rubin Schwartz, Walter and Sarah Schlesinger Dean of Graduate and Undergraduate Studies and the Irving Lehrman Research Associate Professor of American Jewish History