Filling an appetite for Jewish learning

Doctoral candidate Yedidya Etzion arrived at U.C. Berkeley in 2009. His research topic: comparing the language of Western law with that of the Midrash.

Etzion, 34, expected to find a robust interaction among scholars in his field. But, he said, “When I got here, there was no academic Jewish community.”

U.C. Berkeley has a large Jewish student body, and no lack of Jewish faculty members. But the university offers no undergraduate major in Jewish studies, an indication of the limited opportunities for advanced study and research in the field. While other high-level ethnic studies programs have flourished at the school — students can major in Asian American studies, Native American studies or Chicano/Latino studies, for example — the field of Jewish studies has lagged behind.

U.C. Berkeley now has a growing number of Jewish studies courses.

That changed two years ago with the founding of the Berkeley Institute for Jewish Law and Israeli Law, Economy and Society — an interdisciplinary institute created to expand offerings and elevate the level of Jewish and Israeli studies on campus.

In its short life, the institute has gathered momentum, attracting graduates and undergraduates to a wide array of classes, programs and symposia. This semester, 100 undergrads signed up for eight courses in Jewish and Israeli studies. Offerings this academic year have included modern Jewish thought, religion and politics in Israel, Jewish liturgy and comparative constitutional law.

In addition, the program has brought a number of high-profile speakers to campus, including British Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks last November and Arab Israeli writer Sayed Kashua in March. And students are exposed to the best new thinking from Israel through visiting scholars, including political scientist Yaacov Yadgar from Bar-Ilan University and Barak Medina, a former law faculty dean at Hebrew University.

All of this has helped strengthen Jewish studies at the university, says architecture professor Jill Stoner, chair of the graduate program in Jewish studies (a joint program of U.C. Berkeley and Berkeley’s Graduate Theological Union).

“We are fortunate to have several newly funded post-doctoral teaching fellows who are offering additional undergraduate classes contributing to the minor in Jewish studies,” Stoner wrote in an email. “These fellows are funded through both the Berkeley Institute of Jewish Law and Israeli Law and Society [IJLILS] and the generous contributions of the Diller family.”

The institute’s supporters and faculty say the IJLILS fills an academic gap that was unbefitting a university of U.C. Berkeley’s stature. Harvard University, for example, established its Jewish studies department in 1925, and Brandeis University has been offering bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees in Jewish studies for 50 years.

While Cal doesn’t yet measure up to those universities and a host of others, progress is being made. U.C. Berkeley’s undergraduate minor program now is being expanded, Stoner said, and sponsors and faculty members associated with the new institute hope that eventually U.C. Berkeley will create an undergraduate major — with course offerings spanning musicology, philosophy, history, literature, economics, law, technology, environmental studies and political science.

Of special meaning to Etzion are the monthly conclaves that allow him to present his research informally to other scholars.

“It’s a great thing to have this connection,” he said. “If not for the informal gatherings I would never have had this chance to meet them. Now we have a community.”

This isn’t the first attempt to create a rigorous Jewish studies program on the Berkeley campus. More than a decade ago, the university and the Graduate Theological Union collaborated on a Ph.D. program; however, it has just been announced that this joint program will end, as U.C. Berkeley refines its doctoral offerings in the field.

In addition, in 2005, the mechanism for an undergraduate minor was put in place through the Jewish Studies Program. That program foundered somewhat — professors who retired were not replaced, and course offerings diminished. That presented a challenge for senior Arielle Gabai, 22, who is completing a minor in Jewish studies and found it difficult to cobble together the required classes.

The leadership team of the Berkeley Institute (from left): Miri Lavi-Neeman, Kenneth Bamberger, Daniella Beinisch and Rebecca Golbert photo/laura turbow

The former president of the U.C. Berkeley Jewish Student Union said she found plenty of cultural and social activities for Jewish students. “But there wasn’t much on the campus in the way of academic discourse,” she said. “The classes weren’t there.”

Indeed, only one person completed a Jewish studies minor at U.C. Berkeley from the program’s inception through last May, U.C. Berkeley law professor Kenneth Bamberger said he heard when he helped found the IJLILS. “There weren’t enough classes for people to do it,” he said. But now, he added, “there are plenty of Jewish studies courses and maybe five people will be completing the minor this year.”

Right now, San Francisco State University is the only Bay Area campus with a full-fledged Jewish studies department. Stanford University offers a Near Eastern studies degree with a concentration in Jewish studies. Elsewhere in California, growth has been uneven:

• At UCLA, 2,000 students are enrolled in nearly 70 Jewish studies courses, with majors and minors granted through the Near Eastern studies department.

• At U.C. Santa Cruz, a relatively new program (2010), students can complete a major or minor in the Jewish studies program, which is housed in the Department of Humanities.

• Santa Clara University offers an interdisciplinary minor in Arabic, Islamic and Middle Eastern studies, encompassing study of Muslims, Jews and Christians.

• San Jose State, U.C. Davis and the University of San Francisco offer a minor but no major.

Across the nation, foundations and individual donors are showing increased interest in sponsoring Jewish and Israeli studies programs, often in response to a perceived anti-Israel bias in many Middle Eastern studies departments.

“There is a lot of interest among funders in developing Jewish studies programs on campuses,” said Dawne Bear Novicoff, senior program officer at the S.F.-based Jim Joseph Foundation, one of the program’s supporters.

Stanford and SFSU have newly endowed chairs in Jewish studies, and “that’s a good sign,” said Fred Astren, chair of Jewish studies at SFSU. “It means funding sources have identified needs.”

To many in the Jewish community, U.C. Berkeley represents a special case because of its history of anti-Israel activism. “This [program] is particularly important on a campus that in years past has been a flashpoint around the Middle East conflict,” said Doug Kahn, executive director of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Relations Council.

But the institute’s leaders and faculty are quick to point out their mission is academic, not polemic.

Arielle Gabai

“This is not advocacy,” said Ron Hassner, assistant professor of political science at U.C. Berkeley. “There is no agenda. This is not a place where people debate elections … how disappointed or happy we are with the results.”

Bamberger was a professor in the U.C. Berkeley School of Law when he spearheaded the institute’s launch two years ago with a $750,000 startup grant; he now serves as the institute’s faculty director. Daniella Beinisch, the executive director, will be replaced this summer by Rebecca Golbert, and Miri Lavi-Neeman was hired last month as a director of Israel studies research.

Creating a new department is daunting, Astren said. “It’s a lot of bureaucratic work, a lot of steps.” Bamberger fast-tracked the institute by making it a program of the law school, rather than an independent department. That meant he needed only the approval of the law school’s dean.

Faculty members praise Bamberger’s ability to marshal resources expeditiously, especially given the push-pull forces that can both propel and inhibit academic leadership.

“It had to happen with the right people in place,” Novicoff said. “And Ken’s visionary leadership has brought about a transformative change.”

The institute’s interdisciplinary nature and roots in the law school bring Jewish studies into the present, said Danielle Foreman, program officer at S.F.-based Koret Foundation, a supporter of the institute.

“The institute is focusing on modern-day Israeli studies,” she said. “Jewish studies shouldn’t be limited to ‘Bible 101’ or ‘Music and Jewish history.’ Now we’ve got apples to apples.”

Bamberger says he and supporters of the institute are looking ahead to collaborations with various academic departments at U.C. Berkeley and to forging relationships between U.C. Berkeley and Israeli universities.

“We are at a crucial turning point,” said Bamberger. “At this moment our capacity is expanding considerably.

“There is a lot of appetite for Jewish learning.”

Rebecca Rosen Lum

Rebecca Rosen Lum is a freelance writer.