Students Reflect on Innovative Doctor of Hebrew Letters Program

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At a time when technology allows us to build spiritual and academic communities that are not limited by our physical location, we work to bring innovation, flexibility, and new learning opportunities to our students. While these efforts are ongoing, the Doctor of Hebrew Letters (DHL) program, based at our Pines School of Graduate Studies, began in 1939 and allows rabbis to participate in guided independent study, in a part-time non-residential capacity from wherever they call home.

The DHL program is primarily designed for study over the course of up to seven years, but may be combined with formal coursework, oftentimes with rabbinical students, allowing students to expand their knowledge while satisfying their love of learning. The program involves a course of study in three subject areas, a major and two minors designed by the student in collaboration with three faculty advisors, one for each area.

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Fourth-year rabbinical student Samuel Rheins, who has taken courses with DHL classmates, in the Klau Library

DHL student Rabbi Howard Kosovske ’67 shares, “Several things happened a couple of years ago, just as I was approaching my turning 80! First, I happened to be going over the Laws of Talmud Torah in the Mishneh Torah and I came across this passage: How long is a person obligated to learn Torah? [One is obligated] until the day of that person’s death, as it is written ‘Lest they depart from your heart all the days of your life (Dt. 4:9).’ And whenever one is not occupied with learning, one is forgetting [what formerly that person learned]. (Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Talmud Torah 1:10).”

He continues, “Equally important, I remembered a promise that I had made to my dad, alav hashalom, a half-century earlier and shortly after I was ordained. I promised him that I would work toward a DHL degree. Unfortunately, with the demands of the pulpit rabbinate, my promise to my dad was never fulfilled. And then, just as I was about to turn 80, one thing became clear: As Hillel said, ‘If not now, when?’ (Pirkei Avot 1:14).” Rabbi Kosovske finds online learning to be helpful, as he couldn’t have taken those courses in person.

DHL student Rabbi Cathy Felix ’80 shares, “Remote learning opened the door to rich opportunities to interact with professors all across the country at the different HUC campuses. There have also been occasions when my professional obligations as a part-time pulpit rabbi have infringed on class time. By accessing the class virtually, I was able to attend.”

Rabbi Felix’s major is American Jewish History. “Now that I am semi-retired, I can devote more time to study. I see the DHL as a great way to organize my continuing Jewish education and have produced original research in the area of American Jewish History. I am so fortunate that Dr. Gary Zola, Director of the American Jewish Archives, senior scholar, and all-around mensch agreed to be my advisor,” she says. “His knowledge of American Jewish History is encyclopedic. He has been encouraging and supportive throughout my studies.”

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Rabbi Judy Schindler ’95 teaching about Passover

DHL student Rabbi Judy Schindler ’95 also worked with Dr. Gary Zola to fulfill a major in American Jewish History. She says, “Dr. Zola counseled me, listening to my personal and professional passions, and guided me to set an interfaith framework for my studies. I have published three articles as part of my coursework. I am now working on my dissertation proposal with Dr. Reuven Firestone, Regenstein Professor in Medieval Judaism and Islam, on the topic of my most recent article, ‘Declarations of Dialogue: Christian, Jewish and Muslim Overtures to the Religious Others,’ to be published in CCAR Journal: The Reform Jewish Quarterly (Winter 2023). In fact, Dr. Firestone liked the topic so much he is offering a 500-level seminar on the topic. I am beyond thrilled that my research will be enriched through this course.”

Rabbi Schindler shares more about what led her to the program and her experience so far: “After 21 years of being a congregational rabbi, I made the decision to pursue a different rabbinical path. I was fortunate to receive a job as a professor at Queens University of Charlotte, a small liberal arts college near my home. Teaching about Judaism at a university through an academic lens is quite different from teaching about Judaism through a religious and spiritual lens. The DHL has given me the tools I need to firmly ground myself in academic scholarship.”

She adds, “As a congregational rabbi, there were times when I felt my level of scholarship was not what I wanted it to be. My advisors in the DHL program have all directed my studies and provided me with outstanding resources, thus creating within me a strong sense of replenishment and renewal. I have taken four courses with rabbinical students and, through the process of class discussions, I have been inspired by their perspectives on the texts and subjects of study.”

Fourth-year rabbinical student Samuel Rheins has taken numerous courses with DHL students, from a Talmud elective to courses in Jewish History. He says, “Taking classes with DHL students has enhanced my classes and my time at HUC. One of the main benefits of having DHL students is that it provides ideological, scholarly, religious, and interpretative diversity. DHL students often are reading different and more scholarly sources than rabbinical students; this means that they can bring a greater array of depth to the conversation.”

Learn more about the Doctor of Hebrew Letters program.