Jesuit college teaching Jewish social justice


SAN FRANCISCO (JTA) – Erin-Kate Escobar, a political science major at the University of San Francisco, had never been interested in her school’s Judaic studies program.

“It was Judaism as religion,” she says.

But when classes resumed last month the old program, with its theological and historical emphasis, had morphed into The Swig Program in Jewish Studies and Social Justice, a reconfigured minor aimed at teaching students what it means to be a Jewish social justice activist.

The program offers classes in Judaism, Jewish culture and thought, Jewish-Muslim and Jewish-Christian relations, and Hebrew and Arabic, as well as two core courses dealing with Jewish ideas about social justice.

Escobar signed right up.

“When I think of Judaism, I think of social justice and tikkun olam,” says the 21-year-old senior, who was raised Jewish in Santa Cruz, Calif. “This is something I’m willing to put my name to.”

Jewish social justice has been a growth industry for at least a decade. The field is bursting with new organizations, from the Progressive Jewish Alliance in Los Angeles to Jewish Community Action in St. Paul, and established groups such as the American Jewish World Service that are directing more of their energies to hands-on social justice work.

Young Jews are flocking to these projects, spending vacations digging wells in Africa, standing on picket lines in Chicago and rebuilding homes in post-Katrina New Orleans.

The new minor at the University of San Francisco, however, is the first academic program of its kind in the country.

Several Jewish social justice groups offer short-term and yearlong fellowships to train young people and rabbinical students in social justice work. The liberal rabbinical seminaries offer electives, some of them quite extensive. But it took a private Jesuit college on the West Coast to create the first academic program of study, a school where just 5 percent of 6,000 undergraduates are Jewish.

Aaron Tapper, who has held the school’s Swig Chair of Judaic Studies since August 2007, developed the program. Tapper, an assistant professor, also is the founding co-executive director of Abraham’s Vision, a conflict transformation organization that works with Jews and Palestinians.

For the Swig program, he spent most of the past year assembling a scholarly advisory board, lining up relevant courses and creating a few new ones.

One of the new core courses, taught by Tapper this fall, is “Jews, Jewish Texts and Social Justice Activists.” Students read ancient and modern Jewish texts, and hear from rabbis and Jewish social activists working in the field about a range of issues.

“Many nonprofits define social justice narrowly, in terms of economic justice,” Tapper says. “We define it a lot more broadly to include racial and ethnic equality, sexual orientation, environmental justice.”

The first guest speaker was Rabbi Lee Bycel, the regional director of the American Jewish World Service. He spoke about Judaism’s prophetic tradition.

“I drove home that the core of Judaism is action,” Bycel says. “We have prayer and study, but without action they lack meaning.”

Bycel says “two or three” students he spoke to in the class are considering careers in Jewish social justice, which he finds significant.

“This is a burgeoning field, and we need people who have a deep commitment to social justice and Jewish values, and the ability to be strategic,” he says. “A program like this plants seeds that will hopefully excite people to go on and get training they need to pursue this as a career.”

The lack of trained professionals able to fill the growing number of positions in Jewish social justice organizations was one of the main challenges highlighted in “Visioning Justice and the American Jewish Community,” a report released in May by the Nathan Cummings Foundation that detailed the huge growth in the field.

“There’s such a need to deepen the talent bank,” says Rabbi Jennie Rosenn, the foundation’s program director for Jewish life and values. “The fact that this is the first academic program of its kind is very exciting, and very complementary to the other Jewish social justice programs.”

Activists throughout the United States are applauding the USF program.

“I think it’s wonderful,” says Sam Aranson, the director of educational programs at the Chicago-based Jewish Council for Urban Affairs.

The council has eight rabbinical students enrolled in a three-month social justice fellowship program, as well as six graduate students in its yearlong Nadiv fellowship for Jewish social justice work.

Rabbi Jonah Pesner, the director of the Reform movement’s Just Congregations initiative, says the USF program is smart to tap into young people’s passion for social justice.

“The fact that an academic institution understands the intersection of Jewish text, Jewish liturgy and action in the world and is able to integrate that into a teaching program is a tremendous step forward in the way Judaism is taught,” he says.

Two of the four students who have enrolled for the new minor are Catholic, including Kathryn Butler.

“I’m not Jewish, but social justice is something everybody can relate to,” says Butler, 21. “The more I read about Jewish social justice, it’s not something I’m focused on as a career, but it will help me as a person.”

Although some people are surprised that a Jesuit college was the first to introduce a minor in Jewish social justice, it is quite fitting. The University of San Francisco was the first Catholic school in the country with an endowed Judaic studies chair, founded by the Swig family more than 30 years ago. And the university’s president, Father Stephan Privett, regularly takes his deans and vice presidents on immersion experiences to Mexico and Central America to deepen their commitment to social justice.

“The Catholic tradition’s focus on social justice is really a reincarnation of Judaism’s prophetic tradition,” Privett says. And the school already offers “Performing Arts and Social Justice,” so creating a similar course for Jewish studies wasn’t a stretch.

Still, Escobar says, the Jewish course is different.

“People say, ‘You just add ‘social justice’ to everything at USF, now it’s just Judaism and social justice,” she quips. “I say, no, it’s not just ‘adding’ social justice on the end. Social justice is part of Judaism.”

Recommended from JTA