The explanation for this seeming paradox is that more and more non-Jews are signing up and, to continue this trend, universities must reach out to other ethnic and religious groups, professor Jody Myers said.
That's exactly what's happening at the California State University, Northridge, where Myers has coordinated the Jewish Studies Interdisciplinary Program for two decades. In any given year, non-Jews make up 50 percent to 70 percent of some 800 students in Jewish studies classes, Myers estimated, and she is bullish that the long-term trend will continue.
CSUN is the major college in the San Fernando Valley, but little is known of its Jewish component outside the area, to Myers' quiet frustration. Most of the Jewish community's attention, and philanthropic money, go to the higher-profile and better-publicized programs at UCLA and USC.
Leaving the academic aspect aside for a moment, if one marker of a university's "Jewishness" is the number of Jewish students on campus, then CSUN can hold its own, with the size of its Jewish enrollment reflecting the growing Jewish population of Los Angeles' one-time "bedroom community."
The most recent data from campus Hillel centers indicate that UCLA still tops the list with some 4,500 Jewish students, representing about 12 percent of the total student body. (In the 1960s and '70s, the proportion of Jewish students was estimated at 25 percent or higher)
CSUN and USC are next, both claiming about 3,300 Jewish students, with other strong concentrations at Pierce, Valley and Santa Monica community colleges. Most Jewish students at CSUN, like their classmates, are older than the national average, often attending part-time or seeking career changes. They tend to focus on practical subjects, such as business administration.
In Jewish studies classes, the ethnic and religious variety of the non-Jewish majority includes Christian Asians and Armenians who want to learn about the ancestral roots of their religion, African Americans probing problems of ethnic identity, spiritual seekers, explorers of mysticism whose interest has been sparked by Madonna and other kabbalah-quoting celebrities and many who are just plain curious why Jews and Israel are constantly in the news.
"We are an interesting people," Myers observed.
Myers celebrated a landmark of sorts this year, when the three members of the first graduating class majoring in modern Jewish studies received their bachelor's degrees. An option for a minor concentration in Jewish studies has been available since the beginning of the program in 1969 and graduated 15 seniors this year.
The menu of 24 courses in Jewish studies ranges from such staples as classes in "Introduction to Judaism," "Elementary Hebrew and Conversation" and "The Bible" to the more exotic "Cultural Theories and Methodologies," "Issues in Jewish-American Writing" and "Natural Environment and Judaism." Looking at the breadth and depth of Jewish study offerings at CSUN, Myers asserts that "UCLA and USC [not to mention American Jewish University -- formerly University of Judaism -- and Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion] aren't the only game in town."
That's true, but the "game" has different goals. They reflect the different missions of California's higher education systems, as well as certain distinctions dividing -- like the Santa Monica Mountains -- the Los Angeles basin from the San Fernando Valley.
CSUN does not have prestigious research centers like UCLA's Center for Jewish Studies or USC's Casden Institute for the Study of the Jewish Role in American Life, which draw distinguished scholars from around the world and stimulate classroom courses. By contrast, Myers said, "at CSUN we're part of a campus whose mission is mainly to produce teachers and managers, not researchers."
She sees the education of Jewish teachers as a top priority of her program, but also high on her list is raising the Jewish profile on an ethnically diverse commuter campus. To that end, Myers tries to organize public lectures that will be of interest to the general campus, such as one by a Jewish expert on bioethics in an era of new technology, and "What Kind of a Jew Was Jesus?"
At the same time, Myers is connecting with the outside general and Jewish communities in the Valley, which she describes as a "generally educated audience, with many intercultural interests." She has launched a Jewish-themed film series and scheduled some public lectures at off-campus locations. Another important outreach is through the well-established course on "Service Learning in the Jewish Community," a combined academic and job program, which places students with Jewish social agencies and synagogues.
Myers, a native of Minneapolis, studied at Brandeis University and received her doctorate at UCLA. In 1985, she joined the faculty at CSUN, where she also holds the title of professor of religious studies. She juggles these responsibilities with her other life as a wife and mother of three children, while also writing scholarly articles and books, most recently "Kabbalah and the Spiritual Quest: The Kabbalah Centre in America," coming out this month.
She has now taken on the additional job of fundraiser, aiming for a $2.5 million endowment fund to take the Jewish studies program to the next level. At the top of her wish list is an endowed professorship in Modern Middle Eastern Jewish Studies, and expanded community service and public lecture programs. Guiding the effort will be a community advisory board chaired by Mark Lainer.