Goldman gives $1 million for SFSU Jewish studies

A week after Jews at San Francisco State University came under the latest in a long barrage of anti-Semitic attacks, S.F. State's Jewish studies program was granted eternal life.

S.F. State's Jewish studies program received a $1 million endowment from philanthropist and former Jewish Community Federation President Richard Goldman in memory of his wife Rhoda, who died last year.

S.F. State officials said the grant was not tied to last week's appearance by a Nation of Islam official, but there is little doubt the money will help support a greater Jewish presence and educational effort on campus.

It is the largest single endowment ever bestowed on the university, campus official said.

The sum funds a fully endowed academic chair, which effectively locks into perpetuity the Jewish studies program at S.F. State.

University administrators plan to invest the full amount and fund the new position from interest the fund will earn. The chair will be the program's third full-time faculty member and will divide time between research and teaching.

Laurie Zoloth-Dorfman, chair of Jewish studies, said the grant gives the program greater visibility.

"We are one of the most exciting and innovative growing programs around and our enthusiasm has been matched through this generosity."

For many, the birth of the Jewish studies program three years ago was a dream come true. Longtime Judaic studies teachers on campus had been pushing for their own department for 30 years.

Today the 300-student program offers classes in Jewish history, philosophy, ethics and Hebrew as well as a minor degree program and a graduate certificate. Students from every academic discipline take many of the courses to fulfill general education requirements.

Speaking from his home on Wednesday, Goldman reaffirmed his role as advisory board member, supporter and adviser to the president. The philanthropist has given smaller endowments to S.F. State and to his own alma mater, U.C. Berkeley. But this has been one of his largest contributions to date.

"This gift to the Jewish studies program, which is directed in part to preparing people for professional communal work, seems the best, and most appropriate way to endorse and enhance the positive work taking place at San Francisco State University," he said.

Goldman hopes his gift "somehow offsets the negative things going on at S.F. State," a campus that has seen anti-Israel and anti-Jewish incidents over the past few years. S.F. State drew national attention in 1994 when students painted a Malcolm X mural showing a Star of David with dollar signs inside it.

Rabbi Doug Kahn, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council, said the grant "serves as an antidote to the venomous attacks at Jews directed by a handful of extremist students on campus.

"The objective presentation of the Jewish experience will do more to level the playing field than almost anything else."

In keeping with the Goldmans' lifelong pursuits of social causes, the future chair will focus his or her research and teaching on ethics and Jewish social responsibilities in the areas of health care, the environment, business, education and politics.

The chair-holder also is expected to develop a public lecture series on Jewish social ethics and social responsibility.

University President Robert Corrigan, who was instrumental in negotiating the endowment, lauded Goldman for his generosity. He also pledged to continue his own support of Jewish studies by making it a "No. 1 fund-raising priority."

"My hope is that the program will also become internationally renowned for enhancing the understanding for the important contributions of Jewish tradition to humankind by the highly diverse student population that attends this predominantly minority institution," said the president, who is credited with starting one of the nation's largest Jewish studies programs at a Maryland university in the 1970s.

Zoloth-Dorfman agreed with Corrigan that the S.F. State program can reach many communities via the campus melting pot. It also speaks to the approximately 6,000 Jews on the 27,000-student campus, according to Hillel estimates.

"Jewish studies should not be unique or rare. It should be taught everywhere," she said, noting that 24 percent of the nation's Jews now live on the West Coast.

Zoloth-Dorfman has been actively fund-raising for the program since its inception. She once raised $25,000 from other faculty on campus by sharing with them the folk tale of Elijah's stone soup, in which the prophet tells a poor village that he will make soup from a stone but the soup needs a little seasoning…

"Help me make a soup," the Jewish studies teacher asked her colleagues.

While Goldman discussed with Corrigan his intentions to create the fund, Zoloth-Dorfman and her staff prepared a plan for its use.

"We wrote a grant about the kind of scholarship [the Goldmans envisioned]; a scholarship of engagement, devoted to exploring how Jewish tradition has a place not only in the larger intellectual realm but in day-to-day civic discourse."

Zoloth-Dorfman said her challenge still remains to "deepen and enrich" the multidisciplinary program by drawing on scholars from other academic programs on campus, and to pursue yet another dream — a one-year graduate program in Jewish studies.

Lori Eppstein

Lori Eppstein is a former staff writer.