Refugees estate launches Jewish studies at Hayward

Frieda Ahelleas died in late 1993 with nearly $400,000 in the bank — but no husband, children or other known blood relatives.

A refugee of Nazi Germany, the San Leandro woman decided the bulk of her wealth should go to help Jewish students at four Bay Area colleges. Four-and-a-half years later, the money has been used to inaugurate Jewish studies at Cal State Hayward — a campus currently without a visible Jewish presence.

The university's recently created Jewish studies committee sponsored its first events this spring — a lecture series and a photo exhibit. The committee also is developing Jewish studies courses and creating the Center for Judaic Studies, which university administration formally approved earlier this month.

"We jumped at the chance to start," said Rhoda Agin, co-chair of the Jewish studies committee and a professor of communicative sciences.

Though Ahelleas had no prior relationship with the four campuses, she gave each one about $78,000. They received the checks in fall 1994.

Stanford University's Jewish studies program used the money to support undergraduate and graduate research and summer language study. U.C. Berkeley created a Jewish student scholarship fund, which is almost depleted. Chabot College in Hayward hasn't done anything with the money yet, but expects to use it for Jewish studies in the future.

And Cal State Hayward decided to use the money to create Jewish courses and cultural activities.

Both Ahelleas' reasons for the bequests and the details of her life are sketchy.

Jean Kling, a longtime neighbor and the executor of the will, said Ahelleas was born in Germany to a well-to-do Jewish family.

After the Nazis came to power, they confiscated the family farm and murdered her parents.

Ahelleas, already an adult, apparently fled to China. She immigrated to the Bay Area after World War II. Her third husband, Mihail "Mike" Ahelleas, owned a restaurant and a movie theater. They lived in San Francisco and later moved to San Leandro. Kling knew of no ties Ahelleas might have had to any Jewish group or congregation.

Ahelleas, who was 83 at her death, refused to act like she had money in the bank, Kling said. "She did without so much…I used to tell her, `Frieda, spend it, spend it.'"

Instead, Ahelleas saved as much as she could in order to leave it to a good cause.

"She wanted to help the youth," Kling said. "That's probably why she did it."

As a result, the Jewish studies committee has several thousands of dollars of interest from the bequest to use each year. Unlike Stanford and Berkeley, Cal State Hayward isn't spending the principal.

The interest is "a very small amount, but you have to start somewhere," Agin said. The committee is just beginning efforts to raise money beyond Ahelleas' gift.

The Jewish studies committee formed last year with about a dozen faculty members — most of whom are Jewish.

This spring, the committee offered a four-lecture series on Jewish music, Yiddish literature, Gold Rush Jews and the Jewish roots of Christianity. Each lecture drew an audience of 50 to 70.

Agin's committee also sponsored a photography exhibit in the library and the student union for Israel's 50th anniversary.

The basis for a Jewish studies curriculum is an existing class called "The Literature of the Holocaust."

Agin hopes any new courses will be open to the off-campus community as well.

The committee also is developing the Jewish studies center that will sponsor lectures, research and other activities on history, religion, literature and arts.

Though at least nine other Northern California universities offer some form of Jewish studies, Agin said, "We're not really modeling ourselves after anyone."

The committee hopes to create a momentum that will bring Jewish students out of the woodwork and then attract more Jews to campus.

No Jewish student groups currently exist on campus. No one really knows how many Jews are among Cal State Hayward's 13,000 mostly commuter students, Agin said.

Carole Israel, a 51-year-old Alameda resident, is the first Jewish student to join Agin's committee.

"There are a lot of hidden Jews here," said Israel, a senior majoring in health sciences. Whether they're secular or religious, she said, "they haven't stepped up to the bat to say they're here."

Dvora Yanow, the committee's other co-chair and a professor of public administration, said she believes a Jewish studies center and courses will create a kind of public "address" for Jews to gather around.

"It sends a message that being Jewish isn't something you need to box off from the rest of your life," Yanow said.