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Jewish Journal

Jewish Studies Flourish on Campus

by Tom Tugend

October 24, 2002 | 8:00 pm

While the headlines speak of confrontations between pro-Palestinian and Jewish students at California's public universities, the number and variety of Jewish studies programs on the campuses have never been more bountiful.

Students can earn their doctorate degrees in Jewish studies at the University of California (UC) campuses at Berkeley, Los Angeles, San Diego and Santa Barbara. Master's degrees are offered at Irvine, Santa Cruz and Davis. Stanford University, a private institution, also offers a doctorate in the field.

Within the last few weeks, a number of developments have added strength and further scope to these programs.

At UC Berkeley, the Jewish studies program received a $5 million donation from the Helen Diller family, which will enable the university to annually invite an Israeli professor to the campus for a full year's stay.

The California State University system (CSU), whose nearly 400,000 students on 23 campuses make it one of the largest public university systems in the world, has announced the creation of a bachelor of arts major in modern Jewish studies, through a consortium of the Chico, San Diego and San Francisco campuses. A fourth campus, at Long Beach, is scheduled to join this group next year, and the campuses at Sacramento, San Jose and Sonoma are expected to participate further down the road.

In addition, the state is establishing a teacher training program at the newly created Center for Excellence in the Study of the Holocaust, Genocide, Human Rights and Tolerance at Cal State Chico; Chico's reputation as a Jewish studies center has drawn such speakers as Elie Wiesel and Shimon Peres. Holocaust education has been mandatory in California public schools for some time, but the quality of instruction in these courses has fluctuated widely.

Overall director of the three-campus program is professor Sam Edelman, who, teamed with his wife, Associate Dean Carol Edelman, has made the rural residential Chico campus, about 170 miles northeast of San Francisco, a vital outpost of Jewish studies over the past two decades.

"We believe students should have the option of learning about one of the oldest religions and cultures in the world," Edelman said in introducing the new degree program. "The history, culture, literature and politics of Judaism have had, and continue to have, significant impact on the world."

In an interview, the 54-year-old Edelman, whose roundish face is framed by a white beard, ascribed some significance to the fact that he was born in Altoona, Pa., one day before the official proclamation of the State of Israel. Though he said his parents were "very secular," Edelman absorbed "a wealth of Jewish heart" from his grandmother, and additional Yiddishkayt from an itinerant rabbi.

After receiving his doctorate at the University of Arizona, Edelman went to the Chico campus 23 years ago, hoping to introduce some Jewish studies but planning to leave after two years. However, he soon felt at home in "this natural place, distant from the tumult of the outside world," and was also impressed by the support of the non-Jewish faculty for his Jewish studies efforts.

While the new CSU Jewish studies major, which was seven years in the making, will start officially with the 2003 fall semester, a handful of students on each of the three campuses have jumped the gun by enrolling in the program during the current semester.

The bachelor's program will consist of three basic areas: the Holocaust, Israel and Jewish studies. Majors on the Chico, San Diego and San Francisco campuses will supplement classroom courses on their respective home campuses with online instruction from the other two campuses.

In the planning stage is a master's of education degree program, focusing on Jewish education or Holocaust-genocide education, through a partnership among Cal State Northridge, Chico, Long Beach, San Diego and San Francisco.

At San Diego State, professor Lawrence Baron, director of the Lipinsky Institute for Jewish Studies, said that currently approximately 560 students are enrolled in courses that include Women in the Bible, kabbalah and modern history of the Middle East.

At San Francisco State, site of some of the most intense clashes between Jewish and anti-Israel students, the new major consists of 42-43 required units through courses in modern Hebrew, Jewish culture and society, history and religion. The current Jewish studies program, headed by professor Laurie Zoloth, offers 11 courses with an enrollment of about 175 students each semester.

John Gemello, San Francisco State's interim vice president for academic affairs, welcomed the new major for giving "students from all backgrounds more opportunities to learn about the rich culture, literature, history and politics of the Jewish people."

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