SFSU Jewish studies wins $375,000 grant

San Francisco State's Jewish studies program has won a prestigious federal grant to help create a permanently endowed chair in American Jewish history.

The $375,000 "challenge" grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities became official Monday.

According to the NEH, the San Francisco State University program is one of only 10 nationwide to receive such a grant this year.

"It's like getting a Fulbright," said Laurie Zoloth-Dorfman, an associate professor and chair of Jewish studies at S.F. State.

The challenge grant is meant to cover only one-quarter of the cost of the endowed chair. S.F. State's Jewish studies program must now come up with the rest. It must raise the first $150,000 by July 31 and all of the $1.1 million within four years.

"We are strongly optimistic," Zoloth-Dorfman said. "We have strong support from the Jewish community. There's a lot of optimism about the changes going on at State."

The program offers a minor and a graduate certificate in Jewish studies. In addition to Zoloth-Dorfman, one full-time associate professor, a part-time Hebrew instructor and 11 faculty from other departments regularly teach Jewish courses. Visiting lecturers also teach special classes.

Endowing a chair would allow the 4-year-old program to grow and perhaps one day become a full department, according to Fred Astren, the program's associate professor who wrote the grant application.

"As developments move forward and [a department] becomes an opportunity, I think we would bolt and brace it," Astren said.

If Zoloth-Dorfman can raise the matching funds, the chair would become the program's second permanently endowed position.

Last year, San Francisco philanthropist Richard Goldman gave $1 million to the program, the largest gift ever received by the university. The sum is invested so that its interest will pay the salary of a full-time position. Zoloth-Dorfman said she is still searching for the right person to fill that job.

Goldman's gift last year was announced the same week that a former Nation of Islam official visited the campus to give a fiery public speech pocked with anti-Semitic invective.

While S.F. State officials denied that the gift was a reaction to the anti-Semitic speech, the money is designed to bolster the Jewish presence and educational efforts on campus.

By contrast, Zoloth-Dorfman said the NEH grant was given solely on the basis of the program's scholarship.

"The National Endowment for the Humanities knows nothing about [the campus's anti-Semitic] history," she said.

Added Astren: "What's really great about this is that a national government body believes in what we are doing. It's an enormous shot in the arm."

The Jewish studies program fulfilled several criteria to win the grant:

*Both of its full-time professors have been recognized for their scholarship, Zoloth-Dorfman in bioethics and Astren in medieval Jewish history.

*Zoloth-Dorfman was looking to finance a professor of history, a subject favored by the NEH.

*The program's faculty maintains a high degree of collegiality with other professors at S.F. State as well as with Jewish studies faculty at Stanford, U.C. Berkeley and the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley.

*Program administrators have cultivated local Jewish community ties and promoted service learning, which requires students to get involved with the communities they are studying.

"The magic formula was hard work," said Zoloth-Dorfman. "You don't know what the [evaluation] committees are really looking for, so you have to put down what you are really like."

Lori Eppstein

Lori Eppstein is a former staff writer.