New SFSU Jewish studies head a hurricane of energy

Hired permanently in June after five months as acting director, the 46-year-old professor is creating a new black-Jewish media studies class for the fall. She is coordinating a new Jewish communal studies certificate program. And she is welcoming the program's second tenured professor, a Jewish-Muslim relations expert who starts in August.

The university conducted a national search to replace Howard Eilberg-Schwartz, who left academia last winter.

Zoloth-Dorfman already declares that SFSU's Jewish studies is "no longer the stepchild" of its counterparts at Stanford University, U.C. Berkeley, Graduate Theological Union or University of San Francisco.

Her program, which last spring taught 150 students under the College of Humanities, may not have the funding or reputation of the others. But as a lower-cost public university, she said, SFSU offers something those institutions do not: Its classes are open to all students, whether or not they wish to pursue degrees.

"We're committed to taking all who want to come," said Zoloth-Dorfman, an associate professor of Jewish studies and social ethics. "This is Jewish studies for the rest of us."

Her own background in many ways reflects her philosophy of Jewish studies for the masses. Until the 1980s, she had no interest in Jewish academia.

Raised in a secular Jewish home in Los Angeles, she didn't learn Hebrew and "had a very simple understanding" of Judaism.

Earning her bachelor's degree in women's studies and history from U.C. Berkeley in 1974, she went on to become a nurse, working mainly in neonatal intensive care units.

In the early 1980s, she decided to pursue a master's degree in English at San Francisco State. While writing her master's thesis on Adrienne Rich, I.L. Peretz and Willa Cather, Zoloth-Dorfman realized she didn't understand the inner, spiritual world of these writers and became particularly interested in her own Jewish background.

Deciding to pursue a doctorate at Berkeley's Graduate Theological Union, Zoloth-Dorfman began studying literature but soon switched to social ethics. She earned a master's in Jewish studies and a doctorate in social ethics from GTU, both in 1993.

Zoloth-Dorfman then became a full-time clinical ethicist who "worries professionally," consulting with medical institutions such as Children's Hospital Oakland and the national Kaiser Permanente health-maintenance organization.

A feminist and observant Jew who attends Berkeley's Orthodox Congregation Beth Israel, she is married to Rabbi Dan Zoloth Dorfman and is the mother of five children, ages 2 to 22.

She has written dozens of papers and articles over the years, including several for Tikkun magazine. Her first book, "The Ethics of Encounter: Community and Conscience in Health Care Reform," is set to be published this fall. Despite its secular title, the book is punctuated with Judaism and uses the Book of Ruth to examine communal obligation to the poor.

Though it might seem that moving from ethicist to Jewish studies professor is a leap, Zoloth-Dorfman sees a bridge between her two fields.

"My research and work were always around Jewish ethics," she said.

Irving Halperin, a Holocaust and American Jewish literature professor at SFSU and a founder of its Jewish studies program, was one of Zoloth-Dorfman's instructors when she was pursuing her master's degree in English. He helped convince her to pursue Jewish studies.

"She's what I call a hurricane of energy," he said. "She's also well-grounded in the history of the Jewish people. She's well-grounded in Judaism. And she has a particularly admirable handle on ethics — both Jewish and non-Jewish."

Halperin said she will target today's significant political and social issues, such as feminism, spirituality, and black-Jewish relations.

"She has a direction, an idea of where she wants to go," he said.

Readily acknowledging her unusual outpouring of energy, Zoloth-Dorfman only half jokes that "I sleep very little and drink lots of Peet's."

But she quickly adds that her philosophy accounts for much of her activity.

"The more you take on obligation and responsibility, the more enthusiasm you get back," she said. "Creating community is what gives Jews strength."