Jewish Trojans — Oxymoron No More

"There’s a Jew wearing a yarmulke," a drunk member of Jewish fraternity Alpha Epsilon Pi shouted to a shocked Jacob Faturechi as he rode his bike down fraternity row at the University of Southern California (USC) in 1996.

"I think that it was a novelty to see a Jew at USC that was out of the closet," said Faturechi, adding that at the time he had only recently become more observant. "It was unusual to find a Jew who wasn’t looking to assimilate in the neighborhood."

But that was then.

Today, just steps away from USC’s fraternity row — which has historically been a symbol of the university’s typically all-white culture — lies the new site of the campus Chabad House. The 6,500-square-foot Victorian home, which Chabad is in the process of renovating, will be the third site that the organization will occupy since outgrowing its first two locations in the past three years.

"When we first came, a lot of people didn’t think we’d be around for too long. It’s been so long since there’s been a traditional Jewish presence on campus," said Rabbi Dov Wagner, who founded Chabad at USC in September 2000 and now serves as its director. "But the vibrancy of Jewish life has been picking up here so much. I think people now realize that it’s an integral part of the university."

Fifty years ago, one would have been hard-pressed to find the terms "Jewish life" and "USC" used in the same sentence. But these days their integration is evident in many aspects of daily campus culture.

The modern Hillel building sits proudly across the street from the center of campus. There is a partial-kosher meal option and university housing that is reserved for Jewish students requiring kosher kitchens. Approximately one-third of the faculty and half of the deans at the university are Jews. And the university’s dean of religious life is a Reform rabbi.

But the fact that the Jewish presence on campus is so strong is no accident. In recent years, USC’s administration has been proactive in attracting Jewish students. Dr. Steven B. Sample, USC’s president, has made tremendous efforts to make Jewish students feel comfortable at the university. And the university is only one of two in the country that employs a college recruiter in its admissions office whose sole responsibility is to recruit Jews.

Still, there are skeptics that wonder whether USC’s motives are "kosher," questioning whether the Jewish community is being courted for its financial means or academic reputation. But as far as USC’s administration and faculty are concerned, the university is only making up for lost time.

"Every major university in the country has a strong affinity toward the Jewish community, and we are one of the last to not have that trust relationship," said Rabbi Jonathan Klein, director of USC Hillel.

But old stereotypes are difficult to overcome. Some Jews still associate USC with the "von KleidSmid Era" — when Rufus B. von KleidSmid, thought by some to be a Nazi sympathizer, served as president of the university from 1921-1947, and then became the university’s chancellor until his death in 1964.

"Depending on who you believe, [von KleidSmid] was somewhere between liking Germans and being a Nazi," said Rabbi Susan Laemmle, who was appointed as USC’s dean of religious life in September 1996, the first rabbi in the country to hold such a position.

Although there were no formal quotas in place during von KleinSmid’s administration, it is rumored that only one Jewish student per year was admitted to the university’s law and medical schools. In 1946, also during von KleidSmid’s presidency, a cross burning took place on the lawn of a Jewish fraternity house.

Anti-Semitic activity didn’t end after von KleidSmid’s death. In 1978, USC was accused of planning to fund a Middle East Center using money from American companies doing business with the Saudis, according the Los Angeles Times. In 1986, fraternity and sorority members were suspended after members painted anti-Semitic slogans and "Jew Week" outside a Jewish fraternity that had won a "Greek Week" competition.

In recent years, university administrators have gone to great lengths to change the school’s reputation to attract more Jewish applicants.

Unquestionably, the greatest progress has been made since Sample arrived in 1991. Known for his desire to increase diversity on campus, over the years Sample has vowed to crack down on hate incidents and forge relationships with various religious and ethnic institutions.

Sample, who does not give press interviews, has worked to mend the university’s relationship with Los Angeles’ Jewish community. He is credited with the establishment of the Casden Institute for the Study of the Jewish Role in American Life, strengthening ties with Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) — where more than 600 USC undergraduates take Judaic studies courses each year — and appointing investor Stanley Gold, as the university’s first Jewish chairman of the board of trustees.

"Sample has been spectacularly helpful for Jews and other groups at USC," said Gold, who attended USC law school in 1967. "He is a very inclusive fellow and he’s helped bring about this multicultural environment on campus. He’s welcomed Jewish students and they’ve come."

One result was to hire a full-time recruiter of Jewish students. Currently, Jessica Pashkow serves as USC’s senior assistant director of undergraduate admission. Her territory includes West Los Angeles, the West San Fernando Valley, the state of Colorado and every Jewish day school from San Diego to Santa Barbara.

Pashkow tailors her recruitment presentations to fit each individual student body, depending upon whether she is visiting a public school or a private day school. At a Jewish school she will talk more about Jewish life on campus, such as kosher food options, whereas at a public school, she is more discreet.

"If I’m going to a public high school I’ll say certain things about myself where students who are paying attention will know that I’m Jewish and will then be able to ask me questions," Pashkow said, noting that she often mentions her previous position with USC Hillel and her master’s degree from HUC-JIR. "[I give] little sort of not-so-subtle hints so that the Jewish students that were listening will feel more comfortable asking me questions."

Pashkow also reads the applications for every Jewish high school student who applies to USC. But since USC’s application does not ask students to state their religious affiliation, the only way that Pashkow can identify Jewish students is if they self-identify through their college essay or in a resume of extracurricular high school activities that USC requests from each prospective student.

Each identified Jewish student receives a copy of "Jewish Life at USC," a brochure describing the variety of Jewish options and programs on campus.

Pashkow’s efforts appear to be working. Since the university began keeping track of its Jewish students four years ago, the number of Jewish applicants has more than doubled and the number of those enrolled has more than tripled.

According to Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life, USC’s Jewish students currently number 3,000 and make up approximately 10 percent of the total student population — greater than every school in the California State University and University of California system, with the exception of UC Berkeley (10.5 percent) and Cal State Northridge (10.5 percent).

Pashkow largely attributes the rise in the number of Jewish students at the university to the significant rise in the university’s academic standing over the past few years, thus making the university more attractive to Jewish families. Over the past six years, the average GPA and SAT I scores among students in USC’s incoming freshman class has increased by approximately 8 percent. According to the Office of Admission, students admitted for fall’s 2003 freshman class posses an estimated GPA of 3.99 and an average SAT score of 1342 (out of 1600).

"Because of the history of USC and because of the rivalry with UCLA, I think USC was not seen in the same academic light," Pashkow said. "I think that was a big factor with a lot of Jewish families, that they really think we know that Jews in general care very much about education and are an educated people."

But at a time when the University of Michigan has come under fire for an affirmative action program that President Bush called "fundamentally flawed," some see negative motivations behind USC’s outreach to the Jewish community. Critics question whether Jewish students are being recruited to undo old stereotypes.

Pashkow denied such claims and noted that although she is focused on recruiting Jewish students, all students — including Jewish students — must fit admissions requirements.

"People are misunderstanding that even though we’re recruiting Jewish students, we also want them to be smart," Pashkow said. "They have to have all the other criteria. It’s not just because they’re Jewish that we’re going to admit them."

Michael Thompson, vice provost and dean of admission and financial aid, also denied such claims.

"We are no more interested in you because your mother or father may have been generous to the university," Thompson said. The university’s admissions process is "blind to that," he added, noting that USC is working to expand the diversity of its student body and that Jews are not the only ones that feel courted.

If diversity at USC was Sample’s goal, he is succeeding. Today, USC’s Jewish students are highly identified and empowered students, often coming from leadership positions in high school Jewish organizations like United Synagogue Youth, North American Federation of Temple Youth and B’nai B’rith Youth Organization. They are involved in almost every Greek house on campus, including USC’s two Jewish fraternities, Alpha Epsilon Pi and Zeta Beta Tau, and one Jewish sorority, Alpha Gamma Gamma. And they are active in a range of Jewish organizations that include Chabad and Hillel, which was accredited for its standard of excellence by the national Hillel in April. (JAM, the Jewish Awareness Movement, a Jewish outreach organization, is also coming to campus this year.)

Currently, the university’s greatest challenge is in attracting Orthodox students to campus.

"We’re located away from the Jewish center of gravity of Jewish life in L.A.," Laemmle said. "There’s no kosher butcher or major synagogue and that makes it feel like it’s out of touch Jewishly. That’s our biggest trouble in attracting Orthodox students."

But USC is doing its best to compensate, and is working to become more accommodating to traditional Jewish students and nurturing to those looking to advance their spiritual growth. It hopes to expand its now partial, kosher meal plan and its SChalom housing, university apartments where Jewish students live alongside Muslim students.

Ben Alayev, an Uzbek immigrant whose family moved to California to escape religious persecution, became Orthodox during his time at USC. He said that the diversity at the university provided him with a comfortable environment in which to explore his spiritual identity.

"At a university you have your studies, but you’re also supposed to grow as a person," said Alayev, who is working on completing a master’s degree in international relations. "USC is a really great place for that, because the tolerance that you see at USC you won’t see any other place."