The Center for Jewish Studies at UCLA, only seven years old, has received one of academe's highest recognitions, a $500,000 challenge grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) for the study of Jewish Civilizations. It is the only one this year awarded for Jewish studies, the only one for UCLA and one of only seven awarded to American universities.
A rigorous evaluation by leading scholars "found that the [center's] new emphasis on Jewish Civilization will be comprehensive, of high quality, and significant to the humanities," NEH Chairman William R. Ferris wrote to Dr. Kenneth Reinhard, director of the UCLA center.
"This endowment, while enhancing the educational experiences for students at UCLA, will also have a huge impact on strengthening basic resources in Jewish studies," Ferris notes.
The grant carries with it both considerable responsibilities and benefits for the Jewish community of Los Angeles. The "challenge" in the challenge grant calls for the raising of $2 million in private donations over the next four years to reach the goal of a $2.5 million endowment.
Foremost among the benefits is a series of lectures, symposia and conferences, most open to the public, that will bring some of the keenest minds in the field -- mostly Jewish, but also Christian and Muslim -- to the Westwood campus.
At the heart of the UCLA center's planning is the relatively new academic concept of Jewish Civilization as the focus of its studies and research.
"We hope to study that which is both singular and universal in Jewish civilization, and its constant interaction -- in harmony or in conflict -- with the world's other cultures," Reinhard says.
"Wherever Jews live, they have transformed the host civilization and been transformed by it."
A curtain raiser to a three-year program of intensive intellectual examination of the field will be an international conference on "Jewish Civilization and Its Discontents," with presentations by some 18 scholars, to be held Nov. 3 to Nov. 5 at UCLA. The conference is open to the public without charge.
The conference derives its title and theme from two landmark books on Jewish thought, "Judaism as a Civilization" by Mordecai Kaplan, and "Civilization and Its Discontents" by Sigmund Freud.
The two books, published within four years of each other in the early 1930s, with fascism in the ascent, in a sense examine the brighter and darker aspects of the same coin.
Kaplan, the father of the Reconstructionist movement, saw Jewish religion and history as a positive evolutionary process that would bridge the boundaries separating religion from society, community and culture.
Freud, on the other hand, looked at what he considered as the darker side of religious Judaism and at the often-tragic consequences of Jewry's interaction with other civilizations.
Also set for the fall semester is a public forum on "The Legacy of the Ten Commandments: Ancient Text and Modern Contexts." Subscription to the entire series is $55, with a $10 fee for individual lectures.
In each of 11 Thursday evening sessions, starting Oct. 4, a rabbi or Christian minister will be paired with an authority on law, religion, philosophy or literature to explore a specific commandment.
For instance, in examining the prohibition against stealing, a legal expert on intellectual property rights might address issues raised by new media technologies and the Internet.
"The Decalogue is neither obvious nor irrelevant," Reinhard says. "To either intone the commandments as universal principles for living, or reject them as an emblem of trite moral sententiousness, is to miss the very real challenge they present us with today.... It is our hope to win back the Ten Commandments from their banalization by both the right and left in this country."
In dealing with UCLA students or interested laymen, Reinhard's goal is to "integrate the study of Judaism into what it means to be a knowledgeable person," he says.
In present-day America, "Judaism is only vaguely understood by both Jews and Christians," Reinhard maintains.
By some, Judaism is viewed as the poor older brother of Christianity, while others find appeal in kind of vacuous "Seinfeld Judaism," he adds.
Although few professors enjoy the job of asking for financial support, Reinhard is undaunted by the challenge of raising $2 million.
Since the recent announcement of the NEH grant, he has already come up with $160,000, and has set next year's goal as $650,000.
"I am hitting the pavement and going after both the big money, through wealthy individuals and family foundations, and little money, from people of average means," Reinhard says.
His task is made easier by the formidable reputation the center achieved under its two previous directors, professors Arnold J. Band and David N. Myers.
For more information call: (310) 825-5387 or access the Web site at www.humnet.ucla.edu/cjs .