UCLA Shoah class attracts large number of Asian students

“The Holocaust in Film and Literature” is one of many UCLA classes that draws in undergraduate students looking to fulfill general education requirements. German 59, as it’s listed in the university catalog, has attracted 241 students this quarter.

The course demands are strenuous. Among the required readings are Elie Wiesel’s “Night,” Primo Levi’s “Survival in Auschwitz” and “The Reader” by Bernhard Schlink. Additionally, students read selected works by authors such as Hannah Arendt and Nelly Sachs, as well as poetry, memoirs, encyclopedia entries and original documents. Assigned films include “Schindler’s List,” “Night and Fog” and several documentaries.

Allan, a 23-year-old chemistry major, said he is taking the class because he wanted to explore what caused such a great tragedy with so many deaths.

“It’s a lot of work,” he said, “but it’s an interesting topic and worth the time.”

Allan, a Filipino American, represents a surprising trend for a Holocaust studies class — about 40 percent of the students in German 59 are Asian or Asian American.

“This is not a class that’s taught only for Jews,” said Todd S. Presner, who teaches the course.

One explanation might simply be that the class reflects the demographics of the UCLA student body, which is roughly 33 percent Asian and Asian American. But that ignores some of the more profound motivations expressed by a random sample of students attending Presner’s lectures.

Several students say their interest was piqued in high school, when they first learned about the Holocaust, often through a Jewish teacher.

Isabella Niu, a 19-year-old political science major from Taiwan, first heard about the Holocaust in high school. She said she wanted to learn more after her teacher “just mentioned it and then dropped it.”

Angela, a 20-year-old Chinese American neuroscience major, is attending the class simply to learn more about the Holocaust. She felt it was important to study the topic, and it provides her a break from her science courses.

Presner’s reputation as an enthusiastic teacher who knows his subject is also an important draw for some students.

Among them is Patrick Agustini, a 21-year-old business major from Taiwan, who expects the course to “broaden his outlook and change his perspective.”

Don T. Nakanishi, UCLA Asian American Studies Center director, believes that Asian American students are interested in learning more about the Holocaust for the same reasons as other students: It was the most horrific example of human madness and extermination.

“They are interested in learning more about why it happened, what took place and what lessons we need to learn so that it does not happen again,” he said. “Asian American students may also have a special motivation, which stems from their interest in seeing potential parallels between the Holocaust in Europe and major episodes of genocide in countries from which they and their families fled, like the killing fields in Cambodia.”

Professor David Myers, chair of the Center for Jewish Studies at UCLA, speculated that some Asian and Asian American students might be interested in the Holocaust because of a “lingering consciousness of Japanese internment.”

Yuri Shindo, a 19-year-old biology major from Japan, said that the Holocaust intrigued her, not because of Japan’s role in World War II, but rather because of “how the Japanese were treated in the United States.”

Shindo lamented the fact that the Holocaust is not taught in Japanese schools. She is aware that the Germans are much more knowledgeable about the war and feels that Japan should follow Germany’s example and include it in the school curriculum.

“Japanese people don’t know what happened,” she said.

Lane Ryo Hirabayashi, the George and Sakaye Aratani Professor of the Japanese American Internment, Redress and Community at UCLA, said that he has not seen any empirical material, such as a survey, that would provide any insight into why Asian and Asian American students would be particularly interested in this or similar Holocaust studies courses. He recognizes that the medium might be as important as the message.

“Over the years, I have used documentaries as an integral part of my Asian American studies courses,” he wrote in an e-mail. “What I found is that no matter where I’ve taught, my Asian American students both appreciate and enjoy film and other visual material because they are able to ‘see’ things for themselves that the textbooks and articles only describe.”

While no one has seriously researched why Asian and Asian American students in particular are drawn to this Holocaust studies class, it likely has something to do with the professor’s approach. Presner doesn’t look on the Holocaust simply as a historical event or an enormous tragedy that happened to other people a long time ago in a far away place.

Rather, he said, “it should affect my students personally. Initially, it’s abstract and distant, but in time, it becomes personal and relevant. There is an ethical undercurrent in the class, and I’m not only teaching them facts but engaging my students to become more humane.”

Briefs: UC ‘study in Israel’ program draws Sacramento attention; Gold officially the man at the Fede

UC’s Study in Israel Program Enters Legislature

The effort to reinstate the University of California’s study in Israel program entered the state Legislature last week.

Sen. Carole Migden (D-San Francisco) introduced a resolution on Jan. 17 that urges the UC to adopt a policy similar to those at other universities, which allow study in countries under U.S. State Department travel warnings. Since the UC suspended its program in Israel in April 2002, during the Second Intifada, countless students have had to officially drop out of school and enroll directly in an Israeli university or through a third-party provider.

The move cost some students their financial aid and had to be made without the guarantee that credits earned during their semester or year abroad would be recognized by their UC campus. The same has been true for those wanting to study in the Philippines.

“The UC EAP policy does a disservice to interested students by judging potential programs without weighing the potential academic benefits against the potential nominal risks of traveling in a country subject to a less severe travel warning,” Migden, who is Jewish, wrote in SR 18.

Such resolutions have already been passed by the student bodies at Berkeley, Davis, San Diego and Los Angeles. In the meantime, UC Provost Wyatt R. “Rory” Hume has asked campus chancellors to at least simplify the process of studying in Israel or the Philippines by providing counselors to explain which courses would count for credit, allowing students to keep their university e-mail and facilitating re-enrollment without reapplying.

— Brad A. Greenberg, Senior Writer

Riverside Jewish Family Service to Close

Jewish Family Services of the Inland Communities, the only Jewish agency in the city of Riverside not affiliated with a synagogue, is shutting its doors on Jan. 31.

“Because we don’t have a Jewish federation to fund us, we were unable to get that base amount of money,” said Ilene Stein, the group’s manager.

The office on 10th Street served nearly 100 clients from western Riverside and San Bernadino counties, offering services to Holocaust survivors, organizing grief and health workshops, visiting Jews in assisted-living facilities and nursing homes as well as providing gifts on Jewish holidays.

Stein said that the organization was dependent on grant money, and in the last two years its income dropped from $46,000 to $31,000.

“In the last four years, the grant cycles played against us,” she said.

Jewish Family Services of the Inland Communities was incorporated in 1995, and board president Margie Orland told the Riverside Press-Enterprise that some volunteers would continue to serve people on their own.

“There’s a lot of need in the community. We hope some of this continues, perhaps through the temples,” she said.

Jewish Family Service of the Desert, which receives steady funding of almost $1 million from the Jewish Federation of the Palm Springs/Desert Area, has yet to discuss the possibility of expanding into the area covered by JFS of the Inland Communities.

In the meantime, Stein says Riverside congregations are struggling, and she worries that unaffiliated and secular Jews in the area are losing a critical resource.

“Where the biggest hurt is going to be is looking for Jewish information,” Stein said. “It’s going to be hard for new people moving into the area.”

— Adam Wills, Senior Editor

New Federation Chair Shares Vision at Hebrew Union College

Stanley P. Gold took over lay leadership of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles on Jan. 1 with high hopes for a new future for the umbrella organization for L.A. Jewry.

“Have we made any progress?” he rhetorically asked about 30 students and faculty at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) last week. “A little bit. I’ve been on the job two weeks.”

Gold’s talk, which focused on his vision for The Federation, was the first in a series of dean’s lunches. He began by telling the students why he took the volunteer job even after his wife and rabbi and friends and children counseled him otherwise.

“The one thing I am good at,” said Gold, who serves on the board of governors for HUC-JIR and is president of the private-equity firm Shamrock Holdings, “is I am a change agent.”

And certainly that is something The Federation could use. Jewish umbrella organizations across the country are suffering from decreasing involvement from younger Jews who no longer see the central model as integral to Jewish life. Locally, annual campaign revenues have been practically flat since the early 1990s (not including the $20 million Los Angeles raised in 2006 for the Israel Emergency Campaign).

“The Federation finds itself — and this is not a disparagement of past lay leaders or communal leaders — but it finds itself with a model and culture that was probably terrific 50 years ago, but society has moved on. Jewish life has changed,” Gold said. “It needs to change in order to accommodate.”

He had reiterated the three areas on which he has said he wants to direct The Federation’s focus: making Federation headquarters at 6505 Wilshire Blvd. Los Angeles’ premiere Israel address; strengthening community relations, particularly with Latinos; and improving leadership and education programs. He also emphasized that The Federation needs to stop performing services “where we are sixth or seventh or eighth best. We don’t need to offer programs that other people in the community are doing better. We need to support them.”

Gold said he’s given himself six months to change The Federation’s culture and governance, and also said he expects to increase campaign revenues by at least 10 percent this year.

“Quite honestly, quietly we have an even bigger number in mind. But at least 10 percent,” Gold said. “And if we don’t achieve it, somebody ought to call us on the carpet about it. We ought to be held accountable.”

His first big test will be Feb. 10, when The Federation hosts its Super Sunday fundraiser.

Charedi Choose Unorthodox Job


Jerusalem is a magnet for religious tourism from all over the world, and ultra-Orthodox Jews are a growing segment of the religious tourists visiting the city. In order to meet their special needs, an ultra-Orthodox training program is offering a course to teach men to guide tourists through the spiritual center of the three great monotheistic religions.

The Lekach-run program provides an intensive 140 hours of classroom study plus eight field trips, covering 3,000 years of Jerusalem history — from the First Temple period up to the modern 21st-century city. The course also includes archaeology, geography, ecology and demography, as well as training in how to guide and communicate effectively.

“To be a guide for ultra-Orthodox tourists requires more than just looking and dressing like an ultra-Orthodox person,” said Yerucham Kanteman, the program’s coordinator. “The guide must also have the correct terminology and understand the mentality of his audience. Not every tourist is interested in stories of the hazal [the sages]. The ultra-Orthodox are.”

Kanteman said the guides don’t have to limit themselves to the ultra-Orthodox community.

“There are many general tourists who are interested in a Jerusalem experience and who would be happy to learn from up close about the city’s ethnic mosaic,” he said.

Yosef Haizraeli, a white-bearded student, father of nine and grandfather of six, echoes this sentiment.

“I want to be able to tell people about the history of the religious community in Jerusalem and its contributions to society,” he said. “I would like to bring this information not just to ultra-Orthodox groups, but also to general tourists.”

The program also answers another growing need in the ultra-Orthodox community — employment training.

For years, Charedi men in Israel have been encouraged by their community to engage in full-time religious studies. As a consequence, some 60 percent of ultra-Orthodox men do not participate in the labor market. According to the Bank of Israel research department, the overall level of participation in the workforce in Israel is 55 percent, 10 percent lower than in any other Western country. About one-third of this gap is due to ultra-Orthodox men who do not work.

Recent budgetary cuts in government welfare spending have hit the ultra-Orthodox community especially hard, resulting in a growing awareness of the need to participate in the labor market. Unfortunately, many ultra-Orthodox men lack marketable skills.

Financed by the Jerusalem Foundation, the program is run by Lekach: The Ultra-Orthodox Training Center in Jerusalem, in conjunction with Yad Ben-Zvi and the City of David Project.

The program’s first class had 24 students, ranging in age from 20-something to 70-something. They came from all sectors of the ultra-Orthodox community and learned about the tour guide course from ads in religious newspapers.

Lekach was the natural choice for running this program. Over the past five years, it has established itself as a professional training center for the ultra-Orthodox community in areas related to community and society. It does so while providing an appropriate framework that conforms to the sensibilities of this population. The center conducts courses for sports instructors, dance teachers, librarians, community center professionals and photographers.

“We believe that those who serve the ultra-Orthodox need to know the community and its culture and this can be best done by the community itself and not by outsiders,” said Naomi Borodiansky, Lekach’s director.

“In putting together the program, I contacted the most professional bodies in the field with respect to building the curriculum and providing instructors,” she added.

Feedback about the program has been so positive that Lekach is planning more courses in the future and hopes to add a similar group for ultra-Orthodox women.

The agency itself has a very good employment track record, with a high percentage of its course graduates finding work. Borodiansky is equally optimistic about the tour guides.

“There are many school and yeshiva groups touring Jerusalem, in addition to community groups and families,” she said. “School groups are really hesitant to take tour guides who are not ultra-Orthodox.”

Uri Eldar, one of the program’s younger participants, is a musician with his own band who was studying in a kollel, a yeshiva for married men.

“All my life, I have loved to go places and learn about history,” he said. “This course has given me a wonderful opportunity — to make my hobby into my profession. As a religious person, I see things through a spiritual lens. As a tour guide, I will be bringing a love of Israel and the values of the Jewish people to those I guide. What could be better?”

For help organizing a tour of Israel, visit

Lovin’ the

For playwright Miriam Hoffman, Yiddish is hardly a dying language. “It just doesn’t want to die,” said Hoffman, who will teach Yiddish at the Dec. 14-20 intensive language/culture immersion courses at UCLA and the University of Judaism.

“Yiddish was always a problem since its birth,” said Hoffman, who writes children’s books on the subject, lectures at Columbia University and writes for the Yiddish-language newspaper, Forvertz. “It had to compete with the sacred language, which is Hebrew. Yiddish carried [Zionism] on its back for 1,000 years.”

The California Institute for Yiddish Culture and Language (CIYCL) is sponsoring, “The Art of Yiddish 2003 — Entering the Heart of a Culture Through Its Beat,” with four levels of language courses, klezmer music and lectures on Yiddish literature. A finale performance will feature renowned actor and Yiddish true-believer Theodore Bikel.

Miriam Koral, CIYCL’s director, expects several hundred people to float in and out of the various events and classes, but there also will be a core of about 30 people attending all the language courses, many returning for their fourth Yiddish winter seminar.

“They have been inspired to learn Yiddish in other venues,” Koral said. “Our intention is to inspire people so that they have a real respect for this language, this heritage and language to go out and really sink their teeth into.”

Bikel publicly has complained that many Jews feel a need to support Israel by emphasizing Hebrew over Yiddish. But Yiddish thrives among throngs of Chasidic and other Orthodox Jews in Los Angeles’ Fairfax District and, in larger numbers, Brooklyn’s Williamsburg, Crown Heights and Borough Park neighborhoods and upstate New York’s New Square and Kiryas Yoel communities.

Hoffman told The Journal that when she leaves her Bronx home to visit those enclaves, “it’s like going into Yiddishland. The children play in Yiddish in the streets, the restaurants are in Yiddish and there is the publishing of books in Yiddish for children. It’s exciting because it all starts with the little ones.”

“The Art of Yiddish 2003 — Entering the Heart of a
Culture Through Its Beat: An Immersion in the Living Language, Literature, Song
and Dance.” Dec. 14-20, Royce Hall, UCLA Campus and The University of Judaism.
For more information, visit