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Formerly Dropsie College, the Institute was founded in 1907 in Philadelphia by Moses Aaron Dropsie, and became one of the institutions of higher Jewish learning in America. It is a non-sectarian, non-theological postgraduate institution, specializing in the science of Judaism. It offers courses leading to degrees of Doctor of Philosophy, Doctor of Education, and Master of Arts. The Institute consists of three divisions: the interrelated Hebrew and Semitic studies in the Department of Hebrew and Cognate Learning; the School of Education, with parallel courses in New York City; and the Institute for Israel and the Middle East, which trains qualified personnel for government, social, and educational agencies in the U.S. and Israel. The Institute issues a number of scholarly publications, including the Jewish Quarterly Review. It was reorganized in 1986 and given its present name.

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