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."

Jerusalem Roots Sustain Jewish Life

I never created a professional work about Jerusalem. I didn’t write about Jerusalem in the days I worked as a journalist; nor did I, as a producer, make any films about the city. Nevertheless, Jerusalem is an integral part of all of my creations. Such is the power of Jerusalem that it gives every Jew an energizing flow of Jewish spirituality that inspires all his creative works, consciously and subconsciously.

Jerusalem, it seems to me, symbolizes three basic elements in our collective consciousness: 1. identification with the Jewish tradition, 2. yearning for the Land of Israel and 3. a desire for a divinely inspired, just society.

In recent generations, Jews have been able to give concrete expression to their loyalty to Jerusalem. Zionism deals with the renewal of the bond between the people of Israel and their land and language. But, as far back as close to a century ago, the Arab residents of the region initiated savage terror attacks against Jews wishing to settle in the Land of Israel.

Contrary to often-repeated claims, terror did not begin after the Six-Day War. Even the PLO (Palestinian Liberation Organization), which later became the Palestinian Authority, was established three years earlier, in 1964, when there were no so-called "occupied" territories to liberate.

It was with great emotional difficulty that I decided prior to the release of my film, "One Day in September," to include at its end an authentic interview with the last surviving terrorist of the terror team in Munich, whom we located in a hiding place in Africa.

His words, however, proved tragically correct. He stated: "I do not regret our attack at the Olympic Games. We succeeded brilliantly in bringing the political aims of the Palestinians to the awareness of untold millions all over the world."

Terror, which sabotages our lives in every possible way, unfortunately is succeeding in winning the sympathy of public opinion in its war against Israel. The film, "One Day in September," warns against the destruction of the Zionist dream as a result of physical terror. But it doesn’t mention a terror that is possibly even worse: ideological terror.

Recent years have witnessed an alarming explosion of sophisticated Arab propaganda that has been delegitimizing the Jewish presence in the Land of Israel. This attitude can be summarized by the phrase in a Palestinian schoolbook for the sixth grade which says explicitly: "The argument that Jews have historic rights in Palestine is the greatest lie in human history."

According to a study by Dr. Yitzhak Reiter, conducted for the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies, even the history of Jerusalem has gradually been rewritten. The claim that Jews have no real connection to Jerusalem and its holy sites has been adopted by the Palestinian leadership and has become entrenched in Arab and Muslim communities.

At the heart of this new version is the argument that Arabs ruled Jerusalem thousands of years before the Children of Israel. The most amazing element of the new history is the claim that the First and Second Temples are lies, fabricated by the Jews. This view was even adopted by the Web site of the Egyptian Embassy in Washington, which declared that there has never been any archaeological evidence of Jewish life in the Jerusalem of ancient times.

No wonder, then, that the Palestinians seize every opportunity to destroy in the most uncivilized way all the precious archaeological findings beneath the surface of the Temple Mount. What an irony: No other people except the Jews has ever made Jerusalem its capital, despite its conquest by many imperial powers. But now clear facts are denied and history is rewritten.

By denying the historic-religious bond between the Jewish people and its land, the Arabs portray the Jewish settlement enterprise in the entire State of Israel as theft of their lands. This includes even those lands on which Jews have lived for generations and those acquired at great cost and sacrifice.

Just as the blood libels encouraged the murder of Jews, the contemporary libel that speaks about the theft of the Holy Land by the Zionists and Israel legitimizes acts of terror against the Jews."

However, the accusation of "theft" in the Arab textbooks and communications media — or as the Palestinians call it, "The rape of Palestine" — is applied to the entire State of Israel, with no distinction made between Shechem and Tel Aviv, between Jericho and Haifa.

The influence of this historic revisionism, together with the vilification of Israel and Jews, on Arab youth — particularly Palestinian youth — must be of major concern to us. The media, the textbooks and the sermons in the mosques are fraught with perverse libels and lies that distort both the historic past and the present. They prevent any possibility of coexistence and peace in the foreseeable future and poison the minds of future generations.

Whoever wants to defend Zion and whoever holds Jerusalem dear must take an active role in the struggle against this ideological terror. He must utterly repudiate the false and libelous accusations and tell the true facts about both historical and contemporary events.

Movies can play a tremendous role — a recent pseudo-historical film has demonstrated just how strong their negative influence can be — but each person in his or her own way and according to the means at his disposal, must expose these horrendous lies and slanders against the Jewish people.

The deep and abiding connection between the Jewish people and Jerusalem is both a historic and an existential fact. Just as dreams of Jerusalem sustained the Jewish people throughout the generations in their darkest moments, today, too, Jerusalem nourishes the Jewish people wherever they may be.

If Jerusalem does not belong to us, our entire connection with this land is in question.

Every person needs both roots and wings. Only he who is nourished by the firm ground of his past can give creative expression to his personal dreams. Nations, too, can only soar to new horizons if they are established on sound foundations.

The roots that have bound us to this land for thousands of years are strong and deep. They allow us to survive the strongest tempests and to persist in our unique way of life. Thanks to these roots, the Jewish people was able, even after the horrors of the Holocaust, to renew itself and flourish in all paths of life.

The winds of time cannot undermine us so long as stability of the foundations of our existence, our Jewish and Zionist roots, remain firm. Therefore, we must protect, with vigor and devotion the deep roots of our tradition in Zion and Jerusalem. We all must be defenders of Jerusalem. We all are Guardians of Zion.

This is an excerpt of the annual Distinguished Rennert Lecture that Arthur Cohn delivered in Jerusalem May 27, upon receiving the Guardian of Zion Award from the Ingeborg Rennert Center for Jerusalem Studies at Bar Ilan University. Cohn is the Academy Award-winning producer of numerous films, including "The Garden of Finzi-Continis" and "One Day in September."