A Heavy Course Load

by Alanna Berman July 30, 2010


September will mark the 40th anniversary of the inception of the Jewish Studies Program at San Diego State University, and to celebrate the milestone, department head and religious studies professor Risa Kohn is headed to Israel.

“Since the inception of the program, we’ve always been committed to taking what we do out into the world,” she says of the work students and faculty have done to support education opportunities in the Jewish community and beyond.

On sabbatical during the next academic year, Kohn will work with the Israel Antiquities Authority as a visiting research professor at The Hebrew University in Jerusalem. In her absence, Kohn says she’ll work closely with Lawrence Baron, who will serve as head of the Jewish Studies Program in her absence.

“Spending a year in Israel is a great way to come up with ideas about continuing Jewish education,” Kohn says.

The sabbatical program is just part of the new phase of growth the Jewish Studies Program has undergone since Kohn’s tenure as director began in 2006. As a program, (as opposed to a department) Jewish Studies at SDSU can take on many forms for students interested in pursuing either a major in modern Jewish studies or a minor in Jewish studies. This coming year will mark the first time the program is entirely “in-house.” In other words, students will not have to take courses at other CSUs to complete their program of study.

“We have a lot of flexibility so that students can really tailor the major to have a focus on religion, history, modern Jewish issues, ancient Israel and ancient issues — really whatever they have an interest in,” Kohn says.

Because of this unique structure, the classes within the program are open to all SDSU students regardless of major, although students in the program receive priority.

“The numbers of students we serve seem to me, personally, especially after Sept. 11, to have grown,” Kohn says, “as well as a strong increased interest in the study of religion in general, but also in the study of Judaism and in Israel.”

Not only has class enrollment increased, but so has the number of Jewish students on campus. With about 3,000 Jewish students enrolled, SDSU has the largest Jewish student population in San Diego, and the fourth largest at any California public university. For the third year in a row, Reform Judaism Magazine’s survey has ranked SDSU No. 28 in the country for schools Jewish students choose to attend.

This may be due in part to SDSU’s Visiting Israeli Scholar program, made possible by an endowment from Bernard and Doris Lipinski, as well as support from the Galinson and Glickman families in the mid-80s.

Professor Lawrence Baron was the director of the Jewish Studies Program then, and since stepping down as director in 2006, Baron has continued to teach two classes each semester, including one on Jewish history through film. Bringing the Israeli scholar to speak at community events has been a focus of Baron’s since the program began.

“Each year, the visiting Israeli gives talks in the community and has always been a way to get people off campus interested in the program,” he says.

Last year, Israeli Chanan Naveh filled the position. Naveh came to San Diego with experience as a senior lecturer and academic advisor in the School of Communications at Sapir College in Israel and as a lecturer at the International Relations Department at The Hebrew University in Jerusalem. At SDSU, Naveh taught courses in the History and Political Science departments and was the featured speaker in a lecture series on Israel.

“It’s become crucial, as student groups on campus and college universities have begun campaigns against Israel, to have an academic doing work in Israel to be on our campus and to always represent objective and accurate information relating to Israel,” Kohn says.

The Visiting Israeli Scholar program is unique because there are no permanent faculty positions devoted to the study of modern Israel at any university, says Kohn.

As the Community Outreach Coordinator for the program, Jackie Gmach, who has been working closely with Kohn to extend the program and its presence in the San Diego Jewish community, says she wants to see the lecture program and visiting scholar program expand.

“The creation of the Friends of the Jewish Studies Program will be part of the program’s evolution as an academic body to promote awareness, appreciation and cultivation of the Jewish experience,” Gmach says.

Kohn says she hopes involved community members will help to create a strong Jewish presence for the program, and she’ll continue to work on these efforts while in Israel.

“By working very hard, we will be able to put programs together to ensure the life of the program,” Gmach says. “Outside of SDSU I have joined a number of boards where Jewish life is very involved, and it’s important to me to stay involved now.”

The most recent development for the program is the creation of the Institute for Moral Courage at SDSU, a collaboration between the Jewish Studies Program and world-renowned leaders and thinkers, and the students of SDSU. The Institute will encourage the examination and study of a range of issues related to the study of moral courage and contemporary global ethics.

“[The Institute will be] an inter-disciplinary think tank focusing on the critical study, promotion and recognition of moral courage through a unique mentoring project that brings together scholars across a broad spectrum of specialties (history, political science, philosophy, religious studies, Jewish studies, psychology, ethics),” Kohn says.

Awarded a planning grant last month from the Leichtag Family Foundation, the vision of SDSU as a destination for world leaders is now becoming a reality.

In the meantime, plans to extend some of the program’s academic features are in the works now. Baron says he plans to continue the lecture series on Israel and work closely with the program’s artist-in-residence, Yale Strom, on community events.

“Strom has a great history with SDSU’s Jewish Studies Program as one of the first students to minor in Jewish Studies in the 70s,” Baron says.

Last year, Strom brought flamenco dancers to campus in a concert titled “Souls on Fire,” and he has hosted Pakistani rock star Salman Ahmad, as well as klezmer musicians from across the country.

“These events open another area of Jewish culture to students so that they are not always reading a book or listening to a lecture,” Kohn says.

For more information on what SDSU’s Jewish Studies Program has in store for the future, visit www.jewishstudies.sdsu.edu or call the program’s offices at (619) 594-5327.


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