San Francisco State graduates its first pair of Jewish studies majors

At San Francisco State University, if no news is good news, then good news must be great news.

Jewish and pro-Israel students on the SFSU campus capped a pleasantly uneventful school year with a graduation ceremony where the school's first Jewish studies majors received degrees. For eight years, the program was offered only as a minor.

Elaine Hesselroth, 23, and Daniel Brown, 25, began work on the major even before the possibility of graduating with a Jewish studies degree was announced publicly last fall. The pair completed the major's requirements rapidly, as both had already taken many of the prerequisites. The two formally graduated last week.

"I am very, very excited about the response to this major. It's too early for us to be doing mass advertising for it; all the interest we have now is from word of mouth," said Professor Marc Dollinger, the Jewish studies department's acting director.

Three to four students declare Jewish studies as a major every semester, with several dozen now taking it as a minor, Dollinger added.

Hesselroth, a Walnut Creek native, has been applying lessons from Dollinger and others in classes of her own. She grew up attending Reform Congregation B'nei Tikvah and has been teaching in its religious school since 1999. Some of her college-level work has trickled down into the grade-school classroom.

"I took 'The Jewish Historical Experience' last semester and a modern Jewish history class this semester, and each week I touched on that a little — though obviously not as in-depth as I was doing [at SFSU]. But I was sort of able to bring out more for the kids from their reading. That was exciting for me," she said.

Hesselroth hopes to keep Jewish youth involved within the community.

"I see that after they get done with their bar or bat mitzvahs, most tend to kind of fall off the planet as far as the Jewish community is concerned," she noted. "I just want to get more kids back into the community and have them enjoy it."

She is considering heading to Israel for a 10-month internship with Project Otzma, though she may join the workforce instead and ameliorate college debt.

Brown is already well-established in the workforce, holding teaching posts at San Francisco Havurah, San Rafael's Reform Congregation Rodef Sholom and the Palo Alto School for Jewish Education.

The native San Franciscan hopes to obtain a master's degree and a Ph.D. in Jewish studies with the goal of becoming a professor specializing in medieval Jewish thought.

Even in college, he turns heads in the classroom. "Students show him a great deal of respect and often defer to him in general questions of Judaism and Jewish life when we have class discussions," Dollinger said.

"He's quickly crafted a fine reputation for himself as a mentor and tutor to his fellow students."

Brown, who is Orthodox, downplays his mentor status, noting that Jewish studies is a small major and "most students help each other out. I wouldn't say I'm a unique resource. I've learned a great deal from the other students."

Brown grew up attending Reform-Conservative Congregation Beth Israel-Judea and currently attends both Magen David Sephardim Congregation and Young Israel in San Francisco.

He and his wife, Tiffany, a campus coordinator for the Jewish Community Federation of the Greater East Bay, will spend a year in Israel starting in June. The two will either live on a kibbutz, study in a yeshiva or both. Following his stay abroad, Brown will begin graduate work at Yeshiva University in New York.

Brown praised the professors in the SFSU Jewish studies department and noted that the university's reputation as a hotbed of anti-Israel and anti-Semitic activity has obscured its good work.

"I hope the department continues to grow. I hope the university sees Jewish studies as an important area of study and continues to support it," he said.

"I hope tensions lessen a little bit at SFSU and it becomes more welcoming for Jewish studies majors. We do have good teachers here."

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.