In Search of the Western Jew

Signaling the burgeoning role of West Coast Jews in their region and within the overall American Jewish community, USC has announced the establishment of its Institute for the Study of Jews in American Life.

The rationale for the new “think tank and research center” is given by one of its initiators, Professor Morton Owen Schapiro, dean of the College of Letters, Arts and Sciences at USC.

“There are now more than 922,000 Jews in California alone, and their number in the Western United States has tripled since 1970,” Schapiro says.

As leaders in the arts and media, the general economy and in professional and academic life, “Jews are significantly influencing the shape of things to come” in the West, across the United States, and, indeed, the world, he adds.

“We felt the time was right for a scholarly institute, the first of its kind, focusing on issues of contemporary Jewish life and identity in the West, their relationship to other ethnic and religious groups and their role in the general community,” explains sociologist Barry Glassner, director of the institute.

“There are many excellent Jewish study centers at American and other universities, but their focus is mainly on historical and religious research,” says Glassner. “Our priorities are current issues, with emphasis on the West.”

Most studies of American Jewish life have concentrated on New York and the northeastern states, where still half of all U.S. Jews live, while the theater, at least, has explored Jewish life in the South.

But is there a distinctive Western Jewish identity, different from Eastern and Midwestern Jews? The question will be the subject of a future conference at the institute, but some indicators are found in a study conducted three years ago by the National Council of Jewish Federations.

With a nod to the Hollywood cliché of the Westerner as an individualistic, independent-minded loner, the study showed that Western Jews, compared to their counterparts in other regions, shunned religious and community affiliation, suspected central authority, gave least to charity and were less concerned about intermarriage and the fate of Israel.

Other likely subjects on the institute’s future agenda are Jewish feminism, Jewish values and attitudes in public education and medical ethics, Hollywood’s portrayal of Jews and Jewish relations with Latinos, African-Americans, Asian-Americans and Arab-Americans.

As its inaugural event, the institute will play to the Jewish, and USC’s, strength in the visual arts, with the Oct. 24-26 conference, “Eye & Thou: Jewish Autobiography in Film and Video.”

Those who have not kept up with academic changes and rankings in the United States may be startled by USC’s decision to launch a Jewish study center.

At least for the first 60 years of its existence, up to World War II, the private university near Downtown Los Angeles was considered a WASP bastion, inhospitable to minorities. Academically, it was mainly renowned for its great athletic teams.

Schapiro and Glassner want to show that both stereotypes are way outdated.

During the last couple of decades, USC has made a concerted effort to recruit Jewish students and faculty, to the point that close to 10 percent of its 25,000 students are Jewish, as are one-third of all deans and professors.

At the same time, USC’s academic standing has risen rapidly. The enhanced reputation helps attract more Jewish students, who in turn raise classroom competition and scholastic levels, Schapiro believes.

“To have a great university, you need a strong Jewish presence,” he observes with pardonable chauvinism.

Much of the credit for this presence also goes to the outstanding Hillel program, says Schapiro, initiated by Rabbi Laura Geller and expanded by Rabbi Susan Laemmle, now dean of Religious Life for the campus.

USC President Steven B. Sample, who is given high marks for toughening USC’s standards over the past decade, recently noted that “The Jewish contribution has been immense. Our ties to the Jewish community are as strong as those of any other American university.”

These ties are greatly enhanced by USC’s close partnership with the neighboring Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. HUC’s faculty is teaching Jewish-themed courses for some 1,000 undergraduates, half of them non-Jews.

USC’s large Jewish faculty, and their interest in exploring Jewish aspects of their research in dozens of disciplines, was a major catalyst in forming the new institute.

“Looking at all the separate research projects by our scholars, we realized that we could do a lot more by joining together in an interdisciplinary institute,” says Schapiro.

In their first call last year to gauge the feasibility of such an institute, the initiators were amazed when some 50 USC and 10 HUC professors signaled their interest and support.

One major side-benefit of the institute is that it gives the Jewish presence on campus a central address, which, not so incidentally, encourages generous donors to mail in their checks.

“The response from our Jewish alumni has been tremendous,” says Glassner. So far, without a concerted publicity or fund-raising campaign, about $1 million has come in.

The “Opportunities for Support” list in the institute’s brochure ranges from a $2.5-million endowment, for which the institute will adopt the donor’s name, to $20,000 for a summer institute.

Glassner says that he has received encouragement from the Jewish Federation, and plans call for future collaboration with the Skirball Cultural Center and the Anti-Defamation League.

As its first public event, the USC Institute for the Study of Jews in America will host a free campus screening of the short film “Say I’m a Jew” on Oct. 22. The film confronts the issues facing children of Holocaust survivors and will be followed by a discussion led by cultural historian Sander L. Gilman of the University of Chicago.

The subsequent conference, “Eye & Thou: Jewish Autobiography in Film and Video,” will be held Oct. 24-26 with seven different screenings, each followed by a conversation between the director and a noted scholar.

“This conference will bring together an exceptional group of filmmakers and scholars from throughout the United States,” says Glassner, co-organizer of the conference. “They will discuss not only their own work, but some of the most crucial issues facing American Jews at the end of the 20th century.”

“Eye & Thou” is dedicated to the memory of Edwin Brennglass, longtime publisher of The Jewish Journal, and is supported by his daughter, Carol Brennglass Spinner.

Additional support comes from the National Foundation for Jewish Culture and the Righteous Persons Foundation.

For information about the institute or film screenings, contact Jeremy Schoenberg, the institute’s assistant director. He can be reached at (213) 740-3405, or by e-mail to