When Jennifer Thompson left her academic position in Iowa to join the Jewish Studies faculty at California State University, Northridge (CSUN), she encountered two problems.
Despite the huge number of Jews living in the San Fernando Valley, it was difficult for her to get a handle on Jewish community resources there when she arrived last fall and settled in North Hollywood with her family.
“While the information is out there, it’s hard to find,” she said. “One can go on the Web, but you have to sort through hundreds of resources to find what you’re looking for. If you finally find a synagogue that interests you, it could turn out to be 30 miles away.”
Although there are “tons of Jewish resources” available to the 50 percent of Los Angeles area Jewry living in the Valley, “most of the resources people know about are on the other side of the hill, and it’s time that we identified what is right here in our neighborhoods,” said Thompson, more formally Dr. Jennifer A. Thompson, Maurice Amado Assistant Professor of Applied Jewish Ethics and Civic Engagement.
Her professorship was established through a $500,000 endowment from the Maurice Amado Foundation and Thompson was selected for the position after a year-long search by a faculty committee, said Jody Myers, coordinator of the CSUN Jewish Studies Interdisciplinary Program.
In response to her quest for a unified and easily accessible resource guide, Thompson’s first classroom research project is to create an online “map of the Jewish San Fernando Valley,” to be followed by a similar undertaking for the Conejo Valley.
Thompson defines her “Mapping the Jewish Valley” project as an ethnographic study, rather than a population or demographic survey.
Each student in her class has to examine the Web sites of three synagogues or other Jewish institutions in his or her community, and then pick one for in-depth research and personal visits.
The student has to dig into the history of the institution, composition of the membership, major programs, types of services and so forth. At the end of the project, the input from all the students will be combined on a spreadsheet and then transformed into an online map for the entire Valley.
Thompson hopes to complete the project by the end of this year and then embark on a similar “mapping” for the Conejo Valley.
The Valley Alliance of the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles is supporting the future Conejo Valley study through a $10,000 grant, according to the Jewish Federation Valley Alliance’s executive director Carol Koransky.
In addition to the San Fernando and Conejo Valleys, the Alliance’s territory encompasses the Santa Clarita, Simi and Antelope Valleys, whose Jewish populations are growing with an influx of younger families, Koransky said.
Thompson comes to the task of mapping the Jewish population from an unusual perspective.
Raised as a Catholic and of Scots-Irish-German descent, she converted to Judaism while an undergraduate at Brandeis University. She is now the Jewish wife of a Catholic-raised librarian and they are raising their six-year old son Samuel (Sam) as a Jewish boy.
After graduating high school in Juneau, Alaska, Thompson studied and taught in Massachusetts, Georgia and Iowa. None of these locations prepared her for the student mix in the “Introduction to Judaism” and “Jewish Ethics and Society” classes she teaches at CSUN.
She was initially perplexed by the Iranian surnames of many of her Jewish students, as well as by the Latino and Filipino descent of their Christian classmates.
Nor was the extent of Jewish background knowledge an indicator of ethnicity or religion, she said, since many Jewish students knew little about the history or rituals of their faith.
The gradations of Jewish identity, especially in mixed marriages, in one of Thompson’s main interests, and not only for academic reasons.
Thompson’s own path to Judaism started through a Jewish friend at her Juneau high school, who invited her to a family Rosh Hashanah dinner. When it came time to pick a college, Thompson chose Brandeis, though not purely for academic or philo-Semitic reasons.
“For one, my boyfriend was going to study at nearby Harvard, and for another Brandeis was one of the few good universities in the area accepting mid-term enrollments, so I could start in the spring, rather than wait for the fall semester,” Thompson explained.
Her Alaska high school friend had also introduced Thompson to some hip Jewish services, “where people were sitting on the floor and playing guitars. I had never seen anything like it,” Thompson said. “When I went to parochial school, we had to be obedient and follow orders, but when I met Jewish kids, they were always arguing, and I liked that.”
During her junior year at Brandeis, a Conservative Beit Din (religious court) officiated at her halakhic conversion.
From Brandeis, Thompson went on to earn a Master of Theological Studies at the Harvard Divinity School, and a doctorate in Ethics and Society at Emory University in Atlanta.
During her studies in in anthropology and sociology at Emory, she independently conducted research and interviews for a study on how Jewish institutions and newspapers deal with intermarried couples.
Atlanta was a fertile field for the study since about 67 percent of its Jewish residents were intermarrying in the 1990s. For her dissertation on “Continuity through Transformation: American Jews, Judaism and Intermarriage,” Thompson interviewed 13 of the city’s rabbis, as well as members of the Mothers Circle, a group reaching out to intermarried couples.
Toward the end of this year, Rutgers University Press will publish her book “Jewish On Their Own Terms: How Intermarried Couples Are Changing American Judaism.”
Some of Thompson’s observations on intermarriage, during a nearly three-hour interview, included:
*Intermarried couples who raise their children Jewish are ”not that much different” from all-Jewish couples with kids.
*Once an intermarried couple decides to raise their children as Jews, the responsibility for the kids’ religious education almost always falls on the mother, even when she is the Christian partner.
*A number of Christian women married to Jewish men told Thompson that they wanted to bear Jewish children to make up for the losses sustained during the Holocaust.
*Many Christian partners in mixed marriages viewed being a Jew in America as a positive. Thompson also cited a survey showing that among all religions in the United States, Judaism was the most admired. On the other end of the spectrum, atheists were the most disliked.
Among her numerous interests, Thompson is an avid gardner and her resume lists among her administrative experiences co-managing and publicizing a neighborhood farmer’s market in Des Moines, Iowa.
Along that line, she is researching Jewish participation in the food movement, started largely by environmentalists in the 1970s. Thompson asks that any synagogue or other Jewish institution involved in the food movement, past or present, contact her by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thompson attends services at Adat Ari El, a Conservative synagogue in Valley Village, and on occasion joins son Sam at junior congregation services.
On a distinctly personal note, Thompson, who is blonde, blue-eyed and a youthful 37, said she finds it awkward when puzzled Jews come up with “but you don’t look Jewish” comments.
To her, the unspoken, probably unintentional, message is, “you’re weird, sort of like a talking dog or a unicorn,” she said, even though she realizes the speaker probably doesn’t intend to convey such a meaning.
In addition, Thompson noted, many born Jews seem surprised that a gentile would voluntarily accept the burden of becoming a Jew. “To me,” she said,” being Jewish is not a burden, it is a very positive part of my life.”