Center for Jewish Studies opens at U.C. Berkeley

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U.C. Berkeley professor of Hebrew literature Robert Alter remembers his first years teaching at Cal in the late ’60s, when Jewish studies in the shadow of the campanile was akin to “a mom ’n’ pop operation, with no organizational framework, no office, no visibility.”

Eventually, in the ’90s, the university upgraded, launching a doctoral program in Jewish studies with the Graduate Theological Union. Alter says the program served students well, but now it is being phased out and replaced with something bigger and better.

With $1 million in seed money, U.C. Berkeley has just opened the Center for Jewish Studies — the university’s first official academic home base for the subject.

Alter, who has won acclaim for his translations of biblical texts, serves as the center’s founding director. Architecture professor Jill Stoner serves as chair and will focus on graduate students, while law professor Ken Bamberger has been tabbed a co-chair and will concentrate on undergrads.

“It’s the missing piece,” said Bamberger, who two years ago founded the Berkeley Institute for Jewish Law and Israeli Law, Economy and Society, which serves both graduate and undergraduate students with Jewish-themed courses and guest lectures, plus brings in visiting scholars. “In a sense, [the center] clicks everything into place. It will bring together students from a wide array of departments, who will now have Jewish studies as part of their degree.”

Professors Ben Brinner (left) and Jill Stoner photo/peg skorpinski

Up until now, Berkeley students had at their fingertips world-class scholars in Jewish text, history and rabbinics. And undergraduates could minor in Jewish studies, though it was an ad hoc process. There was no administrative support to help them steer through their coursework. As such, only three students graduated with a minor in Jewish studies during the 2012-13 academic year.

Also, because Jewish-oriented classes were scattered and there was no location with advisers and staff, “We didn’t have a way for graduate and undergraduate students to find each other — to talk about common interests or to share feedback on classes,” Stoner said, “or to be in a space where community members can participate in their colloquia, or graduate students to share space with visiting scholars.”

Now they will, as the CJS takes up temporary residence on campus in Dwinelle Hall, with an eye toward finding a permanent location within two years. The shingle is out, the coffee pot is on and the center is open for business.

The center will now take under its wing the Jewish studies minor for undergrads (which has been offered at Cal since 2005) and administer a “Jewish Studies Designated Emphasis” for doctoral students. That means Ph.D. candidates may now add Jewish studies as an emphasis in their degree.

The CJS will draw on professors — around a dozen at the start — from 10 U.C. Berkeley departments, including law, journalism, music, Near Eastern studies, comparative literature, history and sociology. Eventually, it might hire two professors of its own.

Courses, which are currently being offered through various departments, cover everything from the Bible in Western culture to representations of the Holocaust in theater.

Said Bamberger, “That’s the very capacious vision of Jewish studies that we embrace at the center.”

With the launch of the CJS, Cal finally catches up with several peer institutions in the region.

Stanford offers undergraduate majors and minors in Jewish studies, as well as graduate degrees through its Taube Center for Jewish Studies. San Francisco State University has a department of Jewish studies and offers a B.A. in modern Jewish studies and a minor in Jewish studies. U.C. Santa Cruz offers an undergraduate major and minor through its Jewish studies department, and also has its own Center for Jewish Studies. U.C. Davis offers a minor in Jewish studies. Even University of San Francisco, a Jesuit institution, offers a minor in Jewish studies and social justice.

Academics from those institutions have taken notice of the development at Cal.

Steven Zipperstein, a professor of Jewish culture and history at Stanford, applauds Cal for instituting the CJS, saying, “Now that there will be a clearly defined unit at Berkeley, it makes all the difference in the world. For the intellectual life there, for faculty and students, there is a clear address.”

Fred Astren, a history professor and chair of Jewish studies at S.F. State, echoes Zipperstein’s enthusiasm.

“As a Berkeley graduate student, I was always amazed there was no program of any kind in Jewish studies specifically,” Astren said. “The new center creates a location whereby Berkeley can have more robust connections with Jewish community learning and organizations.”

Organizers hope to turn the center into a regional hub of Jewish scholarship. Cal already is home to the Institute for Jewish Law and Israeli Law, Economy and Society, as well as the U.C. Berkeley Library’s Judaica collection, which includes extensive Yiddish and Hebrew-language holdings.

And adjacent to campus are several entities that very likelt will collaborate with the CJS on future projects: the Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life, Lehraus Judaica and Berkeley Hillel.

It’s quite the Jewish neighborhood.

“We’re not starting from nothing,” Stoner said. “We have the best faculty and students in the world, and there’s already $8 million in endowed funding for Jewish studies. Jewish studies has endowed lectures, we have support for graduate students, visiting post-docs, plus the $1 million in seed money to carry us through three years of various costs.”

That $1 million represents a vote of confidence from the university’s administration.

“This is meant to be a serious expression of support,” said recently installed Chancellor Nicholas Dirks of the seed money. “It doesn’t happen every day. It’s a real commitment on our part. We didn’t want [the CJS] to be initially hampered by worrying about how to fund things.”

Added Stoner: “The most remarkable thing about this whole enterprise is the commitment of the campus, particular the vice chancellor and provost [George Breslauer], who saw this opportunity and said we’re not just going to announce this, we will announce it with [financial] support. We have a two- to three-year period to strengthen the academic pieces, to look for [permanent] space and build our relationship with the community.”

One community institution is fully on board: Berkeley Hillel.

“It’s only going to help to have a thriving center on par with the high academic excellence of the university,” said Rabbi Adam Naftalin-Kelman, Berkeley Hillel’s executive director. “It’s another piece of a thriving Jewish community at U.C. Berkeley.”

Though the CJS programs allow doctoral students and undergrads to put the words “Jewish Studies” on their diplomas, Cal does not yet offer an undergraduate major or a Ph.D. in the subject.

That may change eventually, Stoner said, but it will take time. For now, she and her colleagues are basking in the glow of how the CJS will take Jewish studies at U.C. Berkeley to the next level.

“It’s an especially potent signal about what kind of campus this is,” Bamberger said. “Having this center puts Berkeley in an important place for its students and among its peer schools.”


Center for Jewish Studies inaugural event: lecture by Robert Alter, founding director, on “The Untranslatable Poetry of Yehuda Amichai.” 6 p.m. Oct. 30, Room 105, Northgate Hall, U.C. Berkeley. Free. or (510) 664-4138

Center for Jewish Studies inaugural event: lecture by Robert Alter, founding director, on “The Untranslatable Poetry of Yehuda Amichai.” 6 p.m. Oct. 30, Room 105, Northgate Hall, U.C. Berkeley. Free. or (510) 664-4138

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.