Originally published July 1, 2013

As a professor in the newly established Religious Studies program at Grand Valley State University, Sheldon Kopperl gets to indulge his passion for religions—including his own Jewish faith—daily with a class of students who may have never before put thought to the subject.

On other occasions, Kopperl takes the stage to lecture a different audience with a background more similar to his own. The professor serves as a fill-in Rabbi at his Jewish services when the resident Rabbi is away.

However, he doesn’t confuse his two roles and holds them distantly from one another.

“(T)he only course where I feel conscious about the distinction between my religion and my teaching is the ‘Jewish Scriptures’ course,” he said. “Yet even there I realize I am teaching about Judaism rather than teaching Judaism.”

Kopperl said the Religious Studies program is especially careful to prevent proselytizing and considers its nature to be one of objective instruction, not preaching.

“When we put together our Religious Studies Program, we made it very clear to ourselves as well as all stakeholders that this was a legitimate academic program, and any sort of proselytizing would be an anathema—or at least a deadly sin,” Kopperl said.

As he respects the code and mission of public universities, Kopperl occasionally finds it difficult to practice his faith during his tenure at GVSU.

“The only way (public teaching) has affected my faith is the fact that the public university must be more aware of Jewish holidays in its planning of major events,” he said. “Clearly a major event would never be scheduled for Easter or Christmas—although occasionally something sneaks in on Good Friday. Similarly, major events on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur should be avoided, as well.”

Kopperl added that one of his Jewish colleagues is “particularly incensed on a regular basis over thoughtless scheduling.”

Despite the scheduling conflicts, Kopperl affirmed his devotion to public education.

“I am wholly committed to public education,” he said. “It frankly never entered my mind to teach at a Jewish university such as Yeshiva or Brandeis, even though the latter is only Jewish by tradition… And as a teacher of religious studies, I feel that a public university offers a fair and level playing field for faculty teaching any of our courses.”


Original publication (on A3): https://issuu.com/grandvalleylanthorn/docs/issue_1_f149edd9e0a236