At age 10, Stanford Jewish studies rivals Ivy League cousins

A decade ago, Stanford University students searching for a course on Jewish history or culture needed more than a little mazel.

Today, students can pick from 30 such classes offered annually. They can access tens of thousands of newly acquired volumes on Judaism. And they can boast of one of the nation's top Jewish studies programs.

On the cusp of its 10th anniversary, Stanford's Jewish studies program is reaching its stride.

"We were able to create the program we dreamed about," said Steven Zipperstein, the program's director and the Daniel E. Koshland professor of Jewish culture and history. "Any creative thing we've wanted to do, we've managed to do."

Although the anniversary isn't official until fall, the Jewish studies program is already celebrating with its Conference on American Jewish Culture from May 12 to 15. An exhibit called "Freedom, Anxiety and Engagement: Ten Years of Jewish Studies at Stanford" is also on display now through May 16 at the Green Library.

The history of the Jewish studies program, though brief, is dense:

*The program now has eight full-time professors and 16 graduate students, who enroll through the history or religious studies departments. Stanford's School of Education has begun offering a Ph.D. with a concentration in Jewish education.

*Graduate students now receive full fellowships through an endowed fund.

*A dozen book collections have been purchased in the past two years, helping push the program's research library to an estimated 80,000 volumes.

*Last month, "The Jews in 19th Century France" by Israeli historian Michael Graetz became the first book published through the new series called Stanford Studies in Jewish History and Culture.

*The fifth issue of the Jewish Social Studies journal is rolling off the press since Stanford's Zipperstein and Aron Rodrigue took over as editors in 1993.

*A weekly study program for 21 community teens called the Mid-Peninsula Midrasha is run by graduate students. And a book group, led by professors, attracts 60 to 70 community members each month.

The funding to build Jewish studies has come partly through private foundations and individuals, including the Koret Foundation and the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation's endowment fund.

Today, Zipperstein asserts, Stanford runs neck and neck with Yale and Columbia universities in the field of modern Jewish history and religious studies.

"It surprised a number of universities," Zipperstein said of the program's rapid ascension.

Arnold Eisen, a professor of religious studies who came to Stanford in 1986 to join the fledgling program, said he considers two accomplishments particularly important.

"First, we've taught literally thousands of undergraduates. That means people who otherwise wouldn't have been exposed to Jewish history, Jewish thought and Jewish literature on a high level were," he said.

"Second, we built from scratch a world-class graduate program in a short time."

One of Stanford's main rivals offers more restrained praise.

Professor Yosef Yerushalmi, director of Israel and Jewish studies at Columbia University, called Stanford's Jewish studies "a fine program."

"You can say they're building an excellent faculty. They have acquired a fine Judaica library," he said. "The question is, it's too young a program to tell what the people who receive their doctorates will do."

So far, two individuals have earned doctorates.

In December 1993, Naomi Koltun-Fromm became the first graduate student affiliated with the program to earn her Ph.D. She is now the director of Jewish studies and an assistant professor of classical studies at Tulane University in New Orleans.

She arrived at Stanford in fall 1987, when the program was in its infancy. As a result of her timing and her specific interest in ancient Jewish history, Koltun-Fromm said, "I made my own way. I made my own program."

But she quickly adds that Stanford's professors are just plain "nicer" and more willing to offer personal attention than their counterparts on the East Coast whom she describes as "entrenched in competitiveness."

Friendliness doesn't win a school its reputation as an academic and research giant, though. Among the program's most significant accomplishments to this end is the expansion of its library, Zipperstein said.

Roger Kohn, Reinhold family curator of Judaica and Hebraica at Stanford, has been buying 3,000 to 5,000 volumes each year. And in the past two years, he was able to buy an extra 16,000 to 18,000 books.

His purchases have included the entire stock of a Yiddish book dealer from New York's Lower East Side, microfilm of The Forward newspaper in Yiddish from 1897 to 1950, and about 500 memorial books of Jewish communities decimated in the Holocaust.

Zipperstein estimated that program now has 80,000 volumes on hand.

The figures aren't exact because Kohn hasn't done an inventory. He won't reveal any financial details but said his book budget has tripled since he arrived four years ago.

Kohn hopes to eventually expand the library to 100,000 or 125,000 volumes.

And while Stanford's academics are patting themselves on the back, they also acknowledge that deficiencies still exist.

The faculty, for example, doesn't include someone who teaches modern Hebrew or Yiddish literature.

"That's a significant intellectual gap," Zipperstein said. "It's one we'd hope to fill in the next few years."