When Trey Palmisano enrolled in Towson University’s Jewish Studies program through the Baltimore Hebrew Institute in 2012, it was a perfect fit. So what if he didn’t have a Jewish bone in his body?
“I would say that my knowledge of Judaism began and ended with the Old Testament,” said Palmisano, a master’s student in Jewish Studies, of beginning classes at BHI.
As one of a few dozen non-Jewish students studying at BHI, Palmisano represents a particularly interesting subset of Jewish scholars: non-Jews. BHI readily touts its openness to non-Jewish students, and other schools, such as American Jewish University in California, encourage non-Jewish students to enroll in their classes right on their homepage.
For Palmisano, the decision to pursue his master’s degree in Jewish Studies was the most recent step in a years-long journey to understand religion and the religious experience.
In May 2012, Palmisano attended a conference concerning the incorporation of interfaith understanding into college classes and programing. Having attended the conference with a professor who specialized in Christian-Jewish relations, he became interested in learning the story of the Jewish people.
“It’s one thing to learn about the ‘old testament’ from the Christian perspective,” he said. “It’s a completely different thing to learn about the Hebrew Bible from a Jewish person.”
In his previous religious studies, “I never really understood that, beyond the Bible, there’s a whole other set of literature that’s equally important from the Rabbinic Period,” he said. Coming from a background in which the Bible was the sole origin of all religious thought and text, he found Judaism especially interesting.
Over the past few years, Palmisano, who was raised Catholic, said his knowledge of Judaism and religion in general has grown exponentially.
“Christians tend to think of Judaism as a religion, but that’s a misperception,” he said. “It involves so much more. It’s a culture. It’s a people. It’s a state of mind. And it’s a community too.”
Between a quarter and a third of BHI’s students are not Jewish, estimates Jill Max, the school’s director. The non-Jews who enroll in BHI classes come from all walks of life, she added, and pursue the study for a variety of reasons.
“We’ve had a wide array of students who are Christian clerics,” said Max. “We have different types of students — some who are fresh out of college and some who really are doing this as a second act.”
In addition to religious leaders, the school also instructs a number of people looking to gain a better understanding of Christianity by looking to the roots of their religion.
“I think different perspectives, different life experiences … they learn from each other, and they add different perspectives to each class,” Max said.
“I think there needs to be more [interfaith exchange],” said Palmisano, “especially in Christian institutions that are ecumenical.”