USF gets new Judaic studies chair

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One year ago, Aaron Hahn Tapper stood on stage with former President Bill Clinton, who recognized him for his conflict resolution work with teens and college students. Hahn Tapper thinks of it as his “moment in the sun.”

This year, the 34-year-old will continue to grow and invest in the nonprofit he started, Abraham’s Vision. And Clinton isn’t the only one who has been impressed. The University of San Francisco hired Hahn Tapper to be its newest Swig Chair of Judaic Studies.

“He’ a person who welcomes people with many different points of view and backgrounds to the conversation,” said Jennifer Turpin, dean of humanities at USF. “His commitment to transforming conflicts between different cultures and faiths is one that really resonates with the university.”

USF is believed to be one of the first Jesuit schools in the country to have an endowed chair of Judaic studies. He is the third person to hold the post.

Abraham’s Vision focuses on conflict resolution and social relations within and between Jewish, Muslim, Israeli and Palestinian communities.

Each year, they recruit 24 Jewish American and Palestinian American college students for a one-year fellowship, called the Vision Program, that culminates in a four-week summer session in the Balkans. Hahn Tapper designed it that way so the students could reexamine the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through the lens of Kosovo and Serbia.

Abraham’s Vision has also partnered with high schools in Los Angeles and New York. Hahn Tapper hopes to bring his educational programs to Bay Area schools in 2008.

“The rewards of this work have been profound. But so have the challenges, in the sense that this work is nothing but political,” he said, even though his intention with Abraham’s Vision is to look beyond the political.

Hahn Tapper is tall and relaxed, reclining in his office chair and putting his feet on his desk during an interview. He grew up in Philadelphia (the product of many years of Jewish day school and summers at Camp Ramah) and now lives in Redwood City with his wife, Rabbi Laurie Hahn Tapper, who teaches at Yavneh Day School in Los Gatos.

He’s studied at Johns Hopkins University, Harvard’s Divinity School and earned his doctorate at UC Santa Barbara.

He’s also traveled to Syria, Lebanon, Jordon, Morocco, South Africa and Southeast Asia. (After college he moved home, worked as a bartender and delivered roses so he could save for a solo, six-month backpacking trip).

The Arabic and Hebrew speaker lived in the Middle East for five years, one in Cairo and four in Jerusalem (during one stint he lived in the Muslim quarter and studied in east Jerusalem, in the West Bank). “I thought, why not try to really broaden my understanding of this conflict?” he said.

Just before that particular trip, he worked as a camp counselor at Seeds of Peace in Maine, which got him thinking about creating his own organization focused on peace among diverse high school- and college-aged individuals.

His interest in peace studies within the context of religious studies is unique and is helping develop a new avenue of scholarship within the religious studies field, said Richard Hecht, a professor at UC Santa Barbara.

“This is a guy who has extraordinary experiential background. He’s not only looking at his studies from an intellectual level, he’s actually doing it. He’s been involved in real conflict resolution. All of that makes him a very attractive, forward-thinking kind of young scholar.”

Hahn Tapper has already started talking with the dean about developing a USF minor in Judaic studies. He started teaching an introduction to Judaism course (on Mondays and Wednesdays, during which time he wears a kippah).

“I like to teach and learn from students,” he said.

Stacey Palevsky

Stacey Palevsky is a former J. staff writer.