Jews and Jesuits live in harmony at Santa Clara University

Katie Wampler needs no reminding that she attends a Catholic college. All she has to do is look around.

Every day the Jewish 22-year-old senior passes the 10-foot cross guarding the entrance of Santa Clara University. And right in the middle of the Jesuit campus lies Mission Santa Clara, built in 1777.

Santa Clara’s Catholic foundation has never been a problem for Wampler or any of the school’s other Jewish students, who number around 200. In fact, most agree Santa Clara, California’s oldest institution of higher learning, fosters a spirit of tolerance.

“It’s not hard to be a Jew at Santa Clara,” says Wampler, “but it’s definitely a kind of challenge, which I embrace with the Jewish mentality of being a light unto the nations.”

Wampler volunteers as an intern for Hillel of Silicon Valley, the Hillel chapter that serves Santa Clara University. As part of her job, she works with Hillel to stage events in partnership with the Jewish Student Union, one of the officially sanctioned clubs on campus.

It’s not a very big club.

“Santa Clara is 75 percent white, 70 percent Catholic,” says Wampler. “It’s not very diverse, but they’re trying. People think they’re in a safe environment to say anything they want. I always found the Jesuits to be more than understanding, willing to exchange ideas and listen.”

One of those Jesuits is the Rev. Jack Treacy, the university’s director of campus ministry. He is responsible for the spiritual offerings at Santa Clara, from pastoral counseling to student retreats. Most of the programming caters to Catholic students, but some is ecumenical.

“We very much try to be as inclusive as possible,” says Treacy. “We have students from other denominations and faiths join in. The retreats and social justice programs are geared for the whole community.”

Treacy tries to meet with all new students and their parents, and while he makes it clear that Santa Clara is proudly Jesuit, he adds, “We also are very much aware of how we are enriched by the diversity of faith traditions. God knows, our world needs to a lot more understanding and harmony.”

When it comes to the Jewish community, Treacy’s main partner is Hillel. Vanina Sandel is director of student life for Hillel of Silicon Valley, and knows the Santa Clara campus well. She works with the Jewish Student Union to coordinate events like Shabbat dinners and holiday celebrations, and she tries to recruit Jewish students to join in. She usually has her work cut out for her.

“In general, the Jewish students are not seeking a Jewish identity on campus,” says Sandel. “They chose [Santa Clara] because it’s a good school. But once they find a Jewish group, it makes an impact.”

For Santa Clara’s post-grads, the Jewish Law Students Association is another active campus organization. Member and third-year law student Marina Beniaminson, 27, says the club has been an asset for her, both as a Jew and as a future lawyer.

“I was not necessarily looking for a campus with Jewish life,” says the Campbell resident. “I already had a network. My parents and I already went to [Los Altos Congregation] Beth Am. When I got to Santa Clara, I was pleasantly surprised to find a Jewish life.”

Her association sponsors speakers addressing issues of interest to law students, Jewish or non-Jewish, as well as holiday and networking events.

“We try to be very inclusive,” says Beniaminson. “Everyone on campus is welcome to our programs. Last year we had a rabbi talk about the Jewish view of abortion. Maybe half of the audience was non-Jewish, interested in those views.”

Beyond her circle of Jewish students, Beniaminson finds the Santa Clara campus a congenial place. She says a substantial number of law professors happen to be Jewish, and that students of all backgrounds get along.

“Everyone realizes that the law school is a small community,” she adds. “Everyone knows each other. You don’t want any negative emotions involved.”

Not everything is picture perfect for Jews at Santa Clara. Hillel’s Sandel notes that last year, the Jewish Student Union applied to join the university’s multi-cultural center, but was denied. “We don’t think the students know a lot about Jews and Judaism,” she says. “They didn’t know it’s also a culture. This is why it’s important to partner with campus ministry, so they start to know Judaism better.”

Adds Rev. Treacy, “I’m the first to admit I’m not as equipped to accompany people of other faiths. But we just met with Hillel. We’re looking to do some programming that would invite students to learn more about the Jewish tradition and religion.”

The Jewish students of Santa Clara University are already on top of that. Beniaminson says the Passover seder she and her fellow Jewish law students presented last year had a good turnout, including many non-Jews.

“You don’t have to be Jewish to go through the same experience of going out of slavery into freedom and embrace this holiday,” she says. “Also, it’s free food.”

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.