Despite the meadows, the redwoods and the ocean breezes, U.C. Santa Cruz has not always been the most tranquil of campuses.
A history of strident anti-Israel activism — including classes, screenings and teach-ins used as forums for blasting Israel — has at times made life challenging for Jewish students and faculty.
Enter Sam Krentzman, who last summer assumed the role of executive director of Santa Cruz Hillel. He said despite past tensions, the campus climate is “great for Jewish students” at U.C. Santa Cruz.
“Like every campus, it’s very complicated to figure out how Israel should be talked about,” Krentzman, 29, said last week. “There are issues that exist in every department, with some professors using materials some might not find suitable. But in general, it’s a really good place to be Jewish.”
Perhaps that’s because there are so many Jews on campus. With approximately 2,850 Jewish undergraduate and graduate students, according to Hillel.org, U.C. Santa Cruz has a Jewish student population of 17.5 percent, the highest in the U.C. system and well above other schools such as U.C. Davis (10.9 percent), U.C. Berkeley (8.5 percent) or UCLA (8 percent).
Krentzman noted that the Santa Cruz campus has a Jewish Studies major, a thriving Chabad and a Hillel. Still, it’s a campus that has endured its share of challenges, such as ongoing anti-Israel sentiment among some students and faculty.
As for his task at hand with Hillel, Krentzman said his focus is on creative arts, Jewish ethics, local social justice programs and entrepreneurship.
Krentzman came aboard after a period of uncertainty at the Santa Cruz Hillel, which also serves students at Cabrillo College (a community college in nearby Aptos) and Cal State University Monterey Bay (40 miles down Highway 1 in Seaside).
More than two years ago, previous director Rick Zinman left the post after the Hillel board chose to “make some big changes and go in a new direction,” according to board member Sheila Baumgarten.
The search for a new director slowed when, as Baumgarten admits, “We goofed. We didn’t have our process down right with International Hillel. That’s when I said, ‘You’ll live with me for a year.’ ”
Baumgarten served as interim director for a year, but happily relinquished the job to Krentzman, whom she admires greatly, particularly his “energy and ability to connect with our young people. He understands them, and knows they’re smart.”
Krentzman illustrated what he called an overall positive campus climate by pointing to some Hillel-sponsored programs, such as Israel Week this month and the Maccabi Games next month. There’s also a weekly Shabbat dinner and an a cappella group.
Brought up in Natick, Mass., about 17 miles outside of Boston, Krentzman remembers Judaism as a cornerstone of his childhood. A Jewish-sponsored trip to Bulgaria during his high school years proved a turning point. He grasped the notion of a much wider Jewish world beyond New England.
Krentzman studied Chinese and international relations at the University of Massachusetts, taking advantage of the campus Hillel.
“I was involved not as president or a leader of clubs,” he recalled. “I was in an a cappella group and started a band. I found [Hillel] to be a warm, welcoming, supportive community.”
After graduating, Krentzman spent a year in Israel’s Negev Desert as part of an artist-in-residency program, in which he wrote and performed music. From there he moved to New York City, ostensibly to seek a music career.
Instead he landed a job as special projects coordinator for the Hillel at New York University. There he designed programs and lectures dealing with Israel, social justice and the environment. One of his proudest achievements was organizing a 2008 Muslim-Jewish student trip to New Orleans.
“It was like West Side Story,” he recalled. “At first everyone was ready to rumble, and by the end of the trip [participants] were inviting each other to weddings.”
As for any lingering tensions over Israel at U.C. Santa Cruz, Baumgarten believes Krentzman will handle them with aplomb.
“He’s a strong supporter of Israel,” she said. “He has a very charismatic way of putting out the good stuff. His way is not to leap to fear but to a creative place, and trust that our students are strong.”
Still a working musician, Krentzman hopes to keep the Jewish students of Santa Cruz bopping. “My first capital investment [at Hillel] was a stereo and turntable,” he said, “so we can have student DJs.”