By Ben Tinsley
DALLAS — This year, senior Robyn Ann Langley of Boca Raton, Florida, became the first Southern Methodist University student ever to minor in SMU’s newly-established Jewish Studies Program.
On Friday, May 13, the 22-year-old was lauded for that accomplishment in the Thompson Reading Room of SMU’s Dallas Hall. Several professors, school officials and SMU alums were there to applaud her.
The timing for this reception was excellent. Langley had a huge, life-changing event happening the very next day.
“I’m finished,” Langley said with a huge smile. “I graduate tomorrow.”
The Jewish studies minor was formally established just this year. But Langley — who is Jewish — was “grandfathered” into the program because she’d already taken nearly all of the 12 hours of required courses on her own. She acquired the hours pursuing a religious studies minor.
Langley, described by colleagues as a talented artist and designer, earned her degree in fashion media at the Meadows School of the Arts. But she made a point of taking Jewish studies courses throughout her time at SMU.
“So I ended up with the two minors — in Jewish studies and religious studies,” Langley said. “This was very important to both my academic growth and my religious growth.”
At the reception, Dr. Shira Lander, professor of practice and director of Jewish Studies in SMU’s Religious Studies Department, described Langley as a “most extraordinary student.”
There currently is not a Jewish Studies major and it is unclear when or if one will be established. But school officials say the minor is picking up steam.
As many as 500 students currently take Jewish studies courses. But Dr. Lander said there are three students — juniors — who are actively declaring the minor. They will attend Jewish studies classes next year.
From her standpoint as a graduating senior, Langley said she sees this new minor as a way to attract more Jewish students to SMU.
“We have less than 300 Jewish students at a university, which is pretty small when you have a population here of about 10,000,” the graduating student said. “I think this will be great for diversity and bringing in people from all cultures.”
Dr. Lander said Langley’s count of Jewish students currently at SMU is correct.
As of 2015 the student population at SMU numbered 11,643.
Langley said the Jewish population was scarce when she first attended SMU. She said she met many female students who told her they’d never met a Jewish person before.
“It was a culture shock,” she said.
Rabbi Heidi Coretz, meanwhile, has been director of Hillel of Dallas — which serves the campus of SMU — for the past 12 years. The rabbi said she has seen SMU evolve from a regional campus into a national university.
“The university has really changed a lot in the time I have been here and I would say we have really grown Jewishly,” the rabbi said. “Dr. Lander has been able to really coordinate the Jewish studies courses and spread the word about its opportunities. I have seen nothing but support and a great amount of respect for it in both the Jewish and non-Jewish community.”
One of the professors teaching Jewish studies classes is Dr. Serge Frolov, who is professor of Religious Studies and the Nate and Ann Levine Endowed Chair in Jewish Studies at SMU.
Dr. Frolov said there are high hopes for the Jewish studies minor.
“It will make the curriculum broader and give students much greater choices,” Dr. Frolov said. “It is hoped to attract more Jewish students — to make it more likely they will come to SMU. “
This creation of the Jewish studies minor was thrilling news to David Zimmerman, a Jewish SMU alum who graduated from the university in 2002 with a major in broadcast journalism and a minor in religious studies.
“This is huge!” Zimmerman said at the Langley reception.
Zimmerman — also a member of the Hillel Dallas Advisory Board — is athletic director, boys’ varsity basketball coach and director of co-curricular activities at Yavneh Academy.
He said having a formal Jewish studies minor will make a huge difference because it will allow Jewish students to be mentored by Jewish professors.
“This is a real start to something special — especially for someone like me,” he said. “I came here and got a minor in religious studies and took some Jewish classes — many of which were taught by non-Jewish professors.”
Zimmerman said it is important that new SMU students find other Jewish students with whom to interact and maintain their Jewish identity while in college.
Langley, meanwhile, said her next step in life is to study for, take and pass the Law School Admission Test so she can study law at colleges such as the University of Miami. She hopes to eventually be an attorney in the area of celebrity entertainment or fashion law.
Born in Miami, Florida, Langley moved to Boca Raton at age 4. There, she enrolled in the Jewish Community Center preschool and continued her involvement in the Jewish community ever since. She attended Hebrew school at Congregation B’nai Israel and was confirmed in 10th grade.
Langley said she continued working at B’nai Israel as a madricha (teacher’s assistant) and was part of the synagogue’s Senior Youth Group (BISY, a National Federation of Temple Youth affiliate).
She has been involved with many Jewish organizations — such as Ruth Rales Jewish Family Services, JAFCO-Jewish Adoption and Family Care Options, and the Otzar Program for Special Needs.
Langley said she most enjoyed working as the lead art and design volunteer for the Otzar Special Needs Sunday school.