A Jew among the Jesuits changes mix at Santa Clara U.

In a garden resplendent with priests and nuns, a seed of Judaism has been planted.

Santa Clara University is about to start its second year with a full-time instructor in Jewish studies.

The oldest Jesuit university in California last year began offering two Jewish studies courses per quarter taught by Cynthia Baker.

"It's not a Jewish studies program, per se," said Baker, who will begin her second year as an assistant professor in the religious studies department when classes start Monday.

"There's a possibility it will develop into that somewhere down the line, but that wasn't part of my hiring."

Then again, a fistful of classes is better than an empty hand, said the Jewish studies director at another Jesuit university in the Bay Area.

"Twenty years ago at a Jesuit school, you'd be taking a course in Old Testament taught by a Jesuit. And the course would inevitably approach the Hebrew Scriptures from a Christian perspective," said Professor Andy Heinze, who directs the University of San Francisco's Swig Judaic studies program.

"The presence of even one person to do Jewish studies on a Catholic or Jesuit campus has a very big impact. It makes for a real shift in the curriculum."

Baker, who is Jewish, is happy to be leading such a shift at Santa Clara, where 55 percent of the students are Catholic.

"Some of my students say they have a Jewish boyfriend or girlfriend, or that they had a Jewish friend in high school and always wondered what being Jewish was all about," said Baker, 38.

Santa Clara's teaching staff includes 33 priests and five nuns, some of whom are professors, but officials could offer no breakdown on the number of Jews among the school's 4,500 undergraduate students. Heinze speculated it's similar to that of USF, where about 4 to 5 percent of the school's 3,000 undergrads are Jews.

The scarcity is apparent.

"I have few to no Jews in my classes, or at least Jews that are self-identifying," Baker said. "Most of the people I'm teaching have no concept or prior knowledge of the topics I'm covering."

Looking to change that situation, Baker last year taught classes such as "Modern Jews and Judaism," "Gender and Judaism" and "Jewish Ethics."

For this school year, she will teach the same courses as well as one titled "Representing the Holocaust." She is also designing a class called "Jesus the Jew" and another on either Jewish mysticism or the origins of Judaism.

"Any courses I want to design or teach, that's what I teach," Baker said.

And who took her classes last year? Many of the students, Baker admitted, were simply looking to fulfill a three-class religious-studies requirement.

"Some of my students put a good deal of effort into it, but others…couldn't care less. They want to become Silicon Valley millionaires, and they're just looking for a rubber stamp from the university."

Baker previously taught at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania. Professor Mark Wallace, head of Swarthmore's religious studies department, described Baker as "wonderful, brilliant and enormously gifted."

"I think it's an especially good fit for her to be at Santa Clara," Wallace added. "She is someone who can dialogue very well, and she'll provide a nice, friendly counterpoint to a predominantly Catholic environment."

Moreover, Baker's expertise isn't limited to one topic. Wallace pointed out that her fields include Holocaust/genocide studies, ancient Semitic texts and women's roles in patriarchal communities.

This summer, she did revisions on her book, which is due out next year and is tentatively titled, "A Well-Ordered House: Architectures of Gender in Jewish Antiquity." In it, she constructs a portrait of ancient women by examining domestic living arrangements and community norms.

Baker, who grew up "all over the country" but spent her teen years in Maine, taught Jewish and Christian studies at Swarthmore. Before that, she was an instructor at Cornell.

She has a master's degree in theological studies from Harvard and a Ph.D. in Jewish history from Duke University. She did her undergraduate work at Wesleyan University in Connecticut, which included four semesters at Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

At Santa Clara, Jewish studies classes have been available for the past 20 to 25 years.

But the classes were few and the teachers were usually hired on a temporary basis from nearby colleges. The hiring of Baker puts a much larger emphasis on Jewish studies.

"We almost always had someone teaching Jewish courses, so we always thought it was a worthwhile endeavor," said Catherine Bell, the new chair of Santa Clara's religious studies department.

"But until Cynthia, we did not have a tenured-track position funded by the university. Her hiring represents a mainstreaming of the Jewish courses."

Heinze applauded the hiring, saying most Catholic and Jesuit schools now have someone similar to Baker, a full-time academic teaching Jewish studies.

However, he added, of the 26 Jesuit universities nationwide, only USF and Creighton University in Nebraska have endowed Jewish studies programs.

Jesuit universities are connected with an order called the Society of Jesus, which is independent from the traditional organizational structure of the Catholic Church.

A Santa Clara spokesman said the Jesuits have "developed a long tradition of scholarly inquiry," forming such distinguished universities as Georgetown, the University of San Diego and Boston College.

Baker, who plans to join a minyan this fall, sounded ecstatic about making the move to Santa Clara — even though it's in the midst of urban sprawl and dot-commers.

"Silicon Valley was not the draw, believe me," she said with repugnance in her tone. "In fact, that may have been the biggest thing that stood in the way."

Fortunately that didn't stop her, said Denise Carmody, the former head of the religious studies department who was promoted to provost over the summer.

"We're just delighted to have Cynthia here," Carmody said. "A number of us have remarked that she fits in so beautifully. Even though she's a younger professor, it seems as if she's been here for years."

Andy Altman-Ohr

Andy Altman-Ohr was J.’s managing editor and Hardly Strictly Bagels columnist until he retired in 2016 to travel and live abroad. He and his wife have a home base in Mexico, where he continues his dalliance with Jewish journalism.