The annual model Passover Seder held by its campus ministry notwithstanding, it’s safe to say that the University of La Verne, a federally recognized Hispanic-Serving Institution where the majority of those enrolled are self-declared minority students, has never been a major hub of student Jewish life. Located 30 miles east of Los Angeles in the city whose name it bears, the main La Verne campus is nine miles from the nearest Chabad and 30 miles from the hub of the Inland & Desert Hillel at the UC Riverside campus.
But if past performance is any indication of future results, Jewish life at La Verne could get a shot in the arm when Devorah A. Lieberman takes over as the university’s first Jewish president, in July 2011.
The situation at La Verne, a 119-year-old nonsectarian university established by members of a German Christian sect known as the Brethren, isn’t all that different from the one that Lieberman encountered at Wagner College in Staten Island, N.Y., where she is provost and vice president for academic affairs. Lieberman helped turn that small private school — which is affiliated with the Lutheran church — into a more diverse and inclusive place than it had been.
“When I came to Wagner seven years ago, I’m going to guess they had about 10 Jewish students,” Lieberman said. “[In] 2010, they had over 150 Jewish students,” or about 8 percent of the 1,800 enrolled at Wagner. (More than 10 percent of Staten Island’s 471,000 residents — 52,000 — are Jewish, a 2002 survey found.)
During her tenure at Wagner, Lieberman also helped make the school more welcoming to Muslim students. The college turned its 80-year-old chapel building, which had been home exclusively to Christian worship, into a space that accommodates regular Jewish and Muslim prayer services as well.
At La Verne, Lieberman would like to reach out to the Jewish community in Greater Los Angeles and beyond. “I think this is a wonderful opportunity to show Jewish students that are local, and nationally, that this is a campus that can support students of any faith, including Jewish students,” Lieberman said.
The move is a homecoming of sorts for Lieberman, who also will be La Verne’s first female president. “I grew up in Covina,” Lieberman said. “I left after high school. I never imagined I’d be coming back to Southern California.”