August 23, 2019

UC Berkeley to open Center for Jewish Studies

The Berkeley campus of the University of California announced on Oct. 16 the launch of a Center for Jewish Studies, enhancing the state’s reputation as a magnet for scholars and students in the field.

UC Berkeley has committed $1 million for the new center, and Chancellor Nicholas Dirks said, “The campus is fully committed to the center’s growth and success. The center will expand the breadth of Jewish studies scholarship here, connect more students to the wealth of Jewish studies resources across the campus, and enrich the university’s engagement with the Jewish community in the Bay Area and beyond.”          

The center will serve as the focal point for faculty and courses from various disciplines and departments, ranging from comparative literature and law to theater and dance.

Heading up the center are professor emeritus Robert Alter, a renowned scholar in Hebrew literature and the Bible, as founding director; architecture professor Jill Stoner as chair and director of graduate programs; and law professor Kenneth Bamberger as co-chair and responsible for undergraduate programs.

In phone interviews, Dirks, Stoner and Bamberger outlined some of the features of the center:

• Doctoral students in various disciplines will be able to take Jewish studies as a “designated emphasis,” or minor, in their major fields. For instance, someone studying for a doctorate in history could take Jewish studies as an area of concentration.

• For undergraduate students, the center hopes to establish a minor in Jewish studies, with the possibility of a major in the field in the future.

• Growing interaction with the Bay Area Jewish community through popular public lectures and other campus programs.

UC Berkeley has slowly expanded its Jewish studies offerings over the past century. Currently, there are programs in Israeli and Jewish law, the Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life, the Hillel student center and the campus library’s Judaica, Yiddish and Hebrew language holdings.

More than $8 million in current endowment funds underwrite three chairs in Jewish history, rabbinics and Hebrew Bible; post-doctoral and graduate fellowships; and two annual lectures.

The two other major Jewish studies centers in California, one at Stanford and the other at UCLA, welcomed creation of the third center at Berkeley.

Professor Steven Zipperstein at Stanford noted that “UC Berkeley has long enjoyed a reputation as a distinguished center of Jewish learning with among the finest faculty in North America in literature, the Bible, history, the Talmud and other fields.”

At UCLA, professor David Myers, chair of the history department and former director of the campus Center for Jewish Studies, noted that “Jewish studies has had a presence on the Berkeley campus for well over a century, since the arrival of the Semiticist Max Margolis in 1897. There has been a string of distinguished Jewish studies scholars ever since.

“But UC Berkeley has lacked a Center for Jewish Studies, a surprising absence given [the university’s] distinction and the exponential growth of the field over the past quarter century. Now that institutional anomaly has been rectified, and this is a good thing for Berkeley, for Jewish studies, and for the healthy competition between Berkeley and UCLA. With major centers in Los Angeles, Stanford and now Berkeley, California has fortified its role as an international power in Jewish studies scholarship.”

The International Directory of Academic Jewish Studies Centers lists 23 university centers for Jewish studies in the United States and Canada, and a much larger number of universities with related courses and programs.

At Berkeley, the new center will report to George Breslauer, executive vice chancellor and provost.

There are an estimated 3,000 Jewish students at Berkeley, making up roughly 10 percent of the entire student body, but students of all religious and ethnic backgrounds are enrolled in Jewish studies classes.

Dirks assumed the chancellorship at Berkeley last June, and in July he joined an academic mission to Israel, meeting with officials at Tel Aviv University and the Hebrew University.