Jewish Life Blooms at Christian College
From different points along the ever-ascending road up this Malibu hillside, the beckoning ocean, the preternaturally landscaped lawn and the roughly rounded mountains peek through the three-story cross that has been punched out of a solid obelisk.
The breathtaking beauty of Pepperdine University inspires spirituality, surely not unintentional for the founders of this 67-year-old Churches of Christ institution, where instilling moral values based on a love of God is as much a part of the mission as academic excellence.
At the very top of the tiered campus is Pepperdine’s School of Law. On its top floor is the office of Sam Levine, an associate professor of law who happens to be an Orthodox rabbi at the nexus of quietly flourishing Jewish community in the middle of a Christian university.
"I think practicing religion is more natural in this type of setting," said Levine, a 36-year-old New Jersey native who moved to the Pico-Robertson neighborhood two years ago with his wife and two small children. "They understand religion and respect religion."
Levine’s hiring seems to be part of a conscious effort in the past few years to make the university more diverse, in part by building up the Jewish faculty and fostering inclusiveness for Jewish students.
"On the one hand we are not narrow and doctrinaire, but on the other hand we do care about our faith mission and we represent ourselves as a Christian university," Provost Darryl Tippens said. "That raises interesting questions of where people of other faiths fit into the institution, and we’re saying they do fit in."
Faculty and students attest to the spirit of warmth and welcoming that characterizes Pepperdine and its willingness to accommodate Jews, whether it is by scheduling meetings and events around Jewish holidays, not calling on first-year law students the day after Yom Kippur or procuring kosher food.
On a deeper level, Jewish insights and ideas are often sought out in the classroom, meetings and conferences, enriching the religious conversation that is central to the school’s mission.
"I think the key to Pepperdine is that it is such a religious school that they really honor people who come in from other traditions," said Laurie Buchan, the only other self-identified Jewish faculty member at the law school, who organized a mock seder with the Jewish Law Students Association (JLSA).
It hasn’t always been this comfortable for Jews here.
"My impression was that Pepperdine was strictly Christian and that other points of view were not going to be welcome, and that was how I lived my first year," said Nancy Harding, who came to work at the Graduate School of Education and Psychology (GSEP) in 2000.
That changed for Harding when a new dean took over GSEP, eventually initiating a diversity task force. About a year before that, new president Andrew Benton had made diversity a stated goal.
Even with these advances, being a Jew at Pepperdine can be internally dissonant.
Undergrads, including the estimated 30 or 40 Jewish students, are expected to regularly attend convocations, and religious classes are part of the core requirements. While graduate students (there are roughly 300 Jewish students in Pepperdine’s four schools) do not have religious requirements, attending any number of Bible study groups at faculty’s homes can heighten a student’s visibility.
Levine and other faculty and students say no one has tried to proselytize or confront them in a hostile way.
Levine has become the unofficial rabbi of Pepperdine. Jewish students often come to him for counseling, and faculty members consult with him on Jewish law and Tanach. Levine has declined invitations to offer opening prayers at meetings, but has delivered a devotional — basically, a d’var Torah — at a faculty seminar. Even the provost had Levine review a speech on the Bible.
Levine’s class in Jewish law and his extracurricular weekly Torah study classes are attended by Jews and a fair number of non-Jews.
The Torah study was started last year by Bob Hull, a 35-year-old first-year student inspired by the Bible study going on around him. Now, he brings in a borrowed stack of Bibles and kosher Krispy Kremes every week.
Hull said the prevalence of religion at Pepperdine makes him feel at home.
"An invocation at the front of a meeting or get together really informs it as a moment of reflection and spiritual connection," he said.
Emily Berg, a Reform rabbi’s daughter and a JLSA leader, said her connection to Judaism has become stronger while at Pepperdine.
"Before, Judaism was something I did and I removed it from the rest of my life. The Jewish community at Pepperdine really lets you bring it out and incorporate it into your life," said Berg, who has helped build the JSLA from 15 students to about 40.
The visible Jewish presence of JSLA and Levine has had a deeper influence as well.
When Bob Cochran, director of the law school’s Institute on Law, Religion and Ethics, puts together conferences, he always includes Jewish scholars, who, Cochran says, "are our religious cousins."
Cochran also includes in the brochures a "Note to our Jewish Colleagues," stating that lectures on Saturday are kept philosophical in honor of Shabbat, and pointing to local synagogues and the availability of kosher food.
Berg sees accommodations such as this as the core of Pepperdine’s identity.
"Pepperdine is a place for people who believe in something more than just themselves — whether it is religion or the law — people who subscribe to the idea of community and to contributing to more than just your own well being," she said. "They are going to make it a welcoming place for anybody who shares that idea."