New Jewish classes at Cal State Chico

Heather Ransdell used to read newspaper articles about the Arab-Israeli conflict and think: "When will these people stop fighting, and why don't they just share the land?"

But after taking a course on Arab-Israeli Peace Negotiations at Cal State Chico, the second-year graduate student in human communications came to understand how difficult it is for both sides to approach the table, discuss peace negotiations and sign a treaty.

This is a value conflict that is so deep and innate in these people, said Ransdell, and I never realized that before.

For the past year, students like Ransdell have benefited from Jewish Studies courses offered at Cal State Chico, helped by seed funding from the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation's Endowment Fund.

Before the grant, courses with Jewish content were listed in the college catalog but were offered only at irregular intervals due to a funding shortage.

Now, the demand for a Jewish Studies program is growing among Jewish and non-Jewish students and faculty, according to Cal State Chico Professor Sam Edelman. It was Edelman and his wife Carol, also a Chico professor, who sought the grant for the Arab-Israeli course.

Of Cal State Chico's 14,000 students, 450 are Jewish; 50 of the 1,800 faculty and staff members are Jewish.

The Jewish studies courses serve as the initial step toward establishing a Jewish studies minor and endowed chair of Jewish and Holocaust studies at the university, the Edelmans said.

The Edelmans are seeking to have the Jewish studies minor approved. If that happens, the university will begin raising funds to endow a chair of Jewish and Holocaust studies. Ideally, the chair will be funded by a combination of grants and donations from Cal State Chico alumni and others interested in seeing Jewish identity brought to new areas.

Courses offered during the first phase of the program (January 1996 to December 1997) included Basic Judaism, the American Jewish Experience, the Holocaust and Arab-Israeli Peace Negotiations.

The most unusual aspect of the Jewish studies program is the option to enroll in selective courses on the Internet. The Edelmans have taught the Holocaust and Arab-Israeli Peace Negotiations classes online.

During the first semester last year, between 10 and 12 people were online at any given time, the Edelmans said. While only a few people took the virtual class, it did capture the attention of Internet users from as far away as New York, Canada, Texas, Germany and the Caribbean, they said.

Julie Smith, a second-year graduate student in cultural communications, enrolled in the online course because she did not have the time or the means to take another class on campus.

"The Internet class was easy to take because all I had to do was open my computer," she said.

Interested in how people communicate, Smith sees the Arab-Israeli conflict as a classic example of a situation in which people can't talk to each other.

It's incomprehensible for someone like me who doesn't have any background in the subject and relies solely on the newspapers, she said.

Now that she has taken the class, Smith feels that she understands the significance of Benjamin Netanyahu and Yasser Arafat sitting down to talk.

Beginning in the fall of this year, Cal State Chico will offer such Jewish studies courses as Jewish Philosophy, Israeli Political Structure, Hebrew and Basic Judaism.

It's a whole new world of possibilities for Jewish and non-Jewish students, said Sam Edelman.

Ransdell and Smith — both are non-Jews — said they appreciated hearing the Jewish students' input and listening to the Jewish and Palestinian speakers. They felt the Arab-Israeli class offered both sides of the issue and allowed students to make up their own minds.

For more information about Jewish Studies at Cal State Chico, call (916) 898-6201. For information about the Endowment Fund, call Executive Director Phyllis Cook at (415) 512-6211.