SFSUs Jewish studies classes open book on identity

"Midrash [biblical interpretation] is the opposite of history," Eilberg-Schwartz told the 15 students in his class. "Don't ask, `what did it mean back then?' It should speak to you in the moment. What is the message you receive now?"

The students hashed out the weekly Torah portion, as they have many other Jewish readings, including works by Martin Buber, Lawrence Kushner and Judith Plaskow.

This semester, Spirituality and Jewish Tradition is one of five classes offered through the Jewish Studies Program at San Francisco State. Other offerings include: the Jewish Historical Experience; Postmodernism and Jewish Tradition; 20th Century American Jewish Women Writers; and Anti-Semitism, Misogyny and Racism: The Interconnections Between Oppressions.

Now in its second year, the program has about 100 students. It's a small operation so far, on a campus known more for anti-Semitic incidents than for Jewish scholars — but professors are hoping the fledgling program will help quash anti-Jewish sentiment on campus.

Last May, SFSU unveiled a controversial mural featuring Stars of David with dollar signs in the middle of them, surrounded by skulls and crossbones and the words, "African blood." The mural was later sandblasted away, but the memory of the attack on Jewish students remains.

"There will always be tension here," said program director Eilberg-Schwartz. "But this [Jewish studies] provides an environment for a more nuanced view of Jews and Judaism. It's not just what goes on at the quad."

San Francisco retiree Shirley Ergonence enrolled in Spirituality and Jewish Tradition because she was concerned about the atmosphere at SFSU since the mural episode.

"The kids need support over there. I thought, well, I'll just take the class to support the fact that they have introduced Jewish studies," said Ergonence.

Though she joined the class to show solidarity with Jewish students at the university, Ergonence said she has learned more in the course than she expected.

"Spiritually, even though I've always gone to temple, the questions that were raised in class give you a different perspective. Some of the background they bring up, you don't know about. I'm so glad they have this. I wish more people would go," Ergonence said.

Seniors older than 60 can take classes at the university without paying admission or registration fees. They are charged only $3 for each term.

The spiritual aspect of the class is what attracted many of the younger students, Eilberg-Schwartz said.

"Young adults, they're identity is in formation. Many of them grew up in distantly Jewish homes, some are half Jewish, a quarter Jewish, and they want to know what this piece of them that is Jewish is."

Peter Doktor, 27, describes himself as "formerly Jewish," and said the class provided a spiritual education about Judaism that he didn't find in Sunday school growing up.

"Looking at the texts, finding literal, intellectual, emotional readings — it's been very rewarding," said the social sciences major.

Melisande Green, 23, is taking the class as a follow-up to a course she took last semester called Zionism and Feminism. The liberal arts major said the latter class often ignited controversy — anti-Zionist students would often show up to watch guest speakers — but it helped shape her Jewish identity.

"It made me more understanding of my religion, where my people are from," Green said. "I can identify more as a woman, what my place is in Judaism."

All of the program's classes are inter-disciplinary, cross-referenced in the school's class catalogue with departments such as philosophy, women's studies, and history.

So far, SFSU offers only a minor in Jewish studies, but Eilberg-Schwartz hopes fundraising efforts will expand the program, which was started with a seed grant of $150,000 from the Jewish Community Endowment Fund.

The Koret Foundation has offered a matching grant of $25,000, and students and professors hope the community and the university will sustain the program, not only with dollars but with attendance.