LOS ANGELES, Nov. 23 (JTA) — This campus of California State University, home to few Jewish students, hardly seems fertile ground to introduce classes in Jewish history and culture. But the classes starting next year are important, says a school official. “Our students, who are tomorrow’s public school teachers, have no connection with Jews in their lives and studies,” said Carl Selkin, dean of the school’s College of Arts and Letters. “Many are immigrants, or the children of immigrants, and they need to know about the Jewish contributions to American society and the building of Los Angeles.” The school becomes the latest college campus without a large Jewish presence on campus to offer classes in Jewish studies. Cal State-Los Angeles has some 21,000 students, of whom more than half are Latino, almost a quarter Asian-American, and 8.4 percent African-American. Among the 15.7 percent that are non-Hispanic whites, Jews make up such an insignificant portion that no statistics, or even good guesstimates, are available. The campus site is near Boyle Heights, home to a vibrant Jewish community before and during World War II. But by the time the campus was opened in 1956, almost all Jews had left the area. That means that few students have had any regular contact with Jews, leaving only a residue of anti-Semitic stereotypes and myths. The Jewish studies program will start out fairly modestly in 2004 by expanding existing courses to reflect Jewish contributions in a given field. Selkin expects that the first such courses will be those covering the history of the film industry and American literature. As the program’s financial resources grow, he hopes to add Jewish-oriented lectures by visiting experts, research projects, scholarships and special events. These studies and activities will be part of the university’s American Communities Program, which has received challenge grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Rockefeller Foundation. However, to put the Jewish program on a sound financial footing, Selkin is seeking an endowment of $200,000 from Jewish community organizations and individuals. The campus has never enjoyed the Jewish activism and presence found at the top American academic institutions. But the campus has also been largely immune to pro-Palestinian demonstrations and confrontations. “These issues don’t really interest our student body,” Brier said. The obvious question remains, then: Do Latino, Asian and black students have the interest, and time, to study about American Jewish culture , history and the immigrant experience? Time is a factor since most students commute to campus, hold part-time jobs, and frequently are older men and women preparing for second careers. Nevertheless, there are “lots of possibilities for the program to make an impact, if carefully planned,” said professor Peter Brier, who has taught English on campus for three decades. “Many students are curious about Jews, beyond the myths and stereotypes,” he said. “There is a growing interest in religious studies, including Judaism and Islam.” Brier also thinks that students may be interested in the Jewish immigrants who preceded them in their communities. Rabbi Michael Perelmuter, who worked with the now-defunct Hillel Extension program on campus, believes that many Christian students, especially Asian-Americans, will wish to explore the Jewish roots of their faith. “It will take an effort, but it is important to keep Jewish culture and history on the radar screen,” he said. One plus factor is the relatively large number of Jewish faculty members on campus. Seymour Levitan, who served as chairman of the psychology department, recalled that in the 1960s roughly one-quarter of his 100-member academic staff was Jewish. Although the number has declined as Jewish professors retire and are largely replaced by non-Jewish faculty, there still remains a sufficient core that could serve as instructors and supporters of a Jewish program.
Tom Tugend is JTA's Los Angeles correspondent. A veteran journalist, he also writes for the Jerusalem Post, the Los Angeles Jewish Journal and the London Jewish Chronicle.