Jewish students who want to extend their college experience beyond Friday night dinners at Hillel and into the lecture hall are in luck at area universities this fall.
Two new entries for Jewish studies can be found at Cal State Northridge (CSUN) and UCLA. CSUN has introduced a major in the subject this fall, and at UCLA, the Center for Jewish Studies has launched a new program on Modern Jewish Culture.
CSUN's major in Modern Jewish Studies in the College of Humanities will focus on the era beginning around the 17th century. The degree won't require proficiency in ancient languages or classical texts, but will concentrate on history, sociology and culture -- areas where the university already has strong faculty.
This focus allows students to examine when the Judaism of today began to evolve, as religious and cultural diversity began to take hold, said Jody Myers, coordinator of the Jewish Studies Program and a CSUN professor of religious studies.
Many non-Jewish students take the courses, but Myers sees a particular benefit for Jewish students. "It's really important that we have Jewish studies at university," she said. "It is different than what they get in religious school and synagogue, where the main criterion is to make you more Jewish or observant."
The cross-disciplinary Jewish Studies Program at CSUN was established in 1969 and adding the Jewish studies major gives the department both more substance and significance in the academic and wider Jewish community. An estimated 3,500 to 4,000 of the 31,000 students at CSUN are Jewish. This semester about 400 students are enrolled in 14 Jewish studies classes, and a handful have designated Jewish studies as a major. The major also is being offered at California State universities at Chico, San Diego, Long Beach and San Francisco, and students can take courses at any of the campuses.
Myers wants Northridge to be a serious option in the minds of Jewish parents who want a Jewish experience to be part of their children's college experience.
"The larger Jewish community thinks of Jewish studies at universities and they think of UCLA and Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion [HUC-JIR] and the University of Judaism, and they stop there," she said. "I hope that this makes people sit up and take notice."
Jewish life at CSUN is distinct from many other universities, since only about 10 percent of students live on campus. Students tend to be career-oriented, so Hillel programming includes mentorships and networking opportunities. Hillel-sponsored Shabbat dinners are more likely to happen at people's homes in satellite neighborhoods than on campus. A service-learning program, administered by the Jewish studies department, allows students to earn credit for interning at Jewish or other social service organizations.
Since students are on campus for classes and not much else, being able to offer Jewish content in an academic setting is vital, said administrators.
"The more opportunities we can afford Jewish students, the more well rounded their college experience will be," said Renee Cohen, Hillel director at CSUN.
While UCLA has no Jewish studies major -- a focus on Jewish studies earns a degree in Near Eastern studies -- its Center for Jewish Studies has been building up interdisciplinary course offerings, public programming and research initiatives since it was established in 1994.
This fall, the center's new Modern Jewish Culture program will include courses on the Jewish interface with secularism, culture in Weimar Berlin, American film, the visual arts and the counterculture.
"Jews have been extraordinary creators in the fields of literature, art, music, film, theater and scholarship," said center director David Myers, who is not related to Jody Myers at Northridge. "It is important to study this remarkable body of achievement not only to acknowledge the Jewish cultural genius, but also to understand better a major pillar of Western culture in the modern age."
David Myers hopes that the undergraduate courses will become the foundation for a larger institute on modern Jewish culture, one that would offer graduate and research opportunities as well as a full calendar of public events.
Some of the other existing programs, of course, remain top draws. Students at USC can focus on Jewish studies while earning a degree in religious studies, and courses are offered in consort with HUC-JIR, which sits on the edge of the USC campus.
For information on the major at CSUN visit www.csun.edu/jewish.studies. For information on UCLA's program in Modern Jewish Culture, visit www.cjs.ucla.edu.