In a marshy corner of the Bay Area, under the radar of the Jewish community, sits a 44-acre university that is both Jewish-owned and Torah-inspired.
Although Jews make up a minority of its student body, Touro University upholds Jewish values as its creed, strictly observing religious traditions and dietary laws.
Located on Mare Island near downtown Vallejo, the university is one of 20 Touro campuses around the world. Like the others, this one closes for Shabbat and Jewish holidays. Eating facilities are kosher, with not one but two mashgiachs (kashrut supervisors) overseeing the kitchens. The director of campus life is an Orthodox rabbi.
And there’s a mezuzah on every door.
Over the last 10 years, the health sciences-based Touro University has trained hundreds of osteopaths, pharmacists, teachers and public health administrators — and has big plans for the future. It also has pumped more than $20 million annually into the economies of Solano County and the city of Vallejo.
“The infrastructure is there,” says Touro Provost Harvey Kaye of the school’s Jewish underpinnings. “Whether we have two Jews or 300, it’s there. For
that one student who might feel insecure, that insecurity evaporates knowing their Jewish beliefs are
That respect goes far beyond the weekly Shabbat dinners and Jewish ethics roundtables led by Yitzchak Kaufman, Touro’s staff rabbi. Kaufman points out that even the school’s gross anatomy lab was designed with traditional Judaism in mind.
For Kohanim (Jews descended from the Israelite priesthood), contact with cadavers is forbidden because of the risk of contact with tummah, or impurity.
“Tummah is best described as cooties,” Kaufman said. “With a dead body, these cooties go out wherever they can, but walls and doors can block it. So the entrances and exits of the anatomy lab have two doors, with a vestibule in between and an electronic setup so you can’t ever have both doors open at the same time. It keeps the tummah inside the lab, so it can’t spread throughout the building.”
For observant Jews, this is serious stuff. Because of tummah, some Jewish osteopathic medicine students have even sought training in foreign schools that do not require contact with cadavers.
“Some rabbis are more lenient,” Kaufman adds. “They told [students] they could be in the lab based on the notion that the majority of bodies are probably not from Jewish people. There’s less stringency about being close to the body of a non-Jew. The students were still not allowed to handle the bodies, so we made arrangements that they could be in there and watch.”
Kaufman’s official title is mashgiach ruchani, Hebrew for “spiritual overseer.” But since most Touro students are not Jewish, he strives to reach out to all.
“I am here for everybody,” he says. “Part of being a Jewish institution and promoting Jewish values includes sensitivity to others.”
Touro’s admissions office does not track students by religion, so there is no official tally of the school’s Jewish population. Current enrollment stands at 1,300 students in four colleges: education, pharmacy, health sciences (offering a joint master’s in physician assistant studies and public health) and osteopathic medicine.
Osteopathic medicine is a 130-year-old discipline that, according to the American Osteopathic Association, emphasizes the inter-relationship of nerves, muscles, bones and organs. Doctors of osteopathic medicine, or D.O.s, frequently practice a form of hands-on care called osteopathic manipulative treatment.
“A D.O. is similar to an M.D.,” explains Dr. Michael Clearfield, dean of Touro’s osteopathic college. “We offer the manipulative component, where you try to bring the body back to alignment, so blood flows right, the joints and articulations are aligned and nerves function more normally. It gives us a distinct advantage.”
Chicago native Ryan Skarbek, 27, is one of Touro’s Jewish students. He grew up attending Jewish summer camps and was active with Hillel at the University of Chicago, where he majored in biology. Though he values Touro’s Jewish underpinnings, he says it was the education — and California’s balmy climate — that drew him to the school.
“The facilities are great, and the anatomy lab is phenomenal,” he says. “I have never been to one with natural lighting. Most are in the basement and dark green. I am blown away continually by how personable the teachers are, how much work they put into it.”
As for Touro’s Jewish atmosphere, Skarbek attends Kaufman’s Shabbat dinners when he can. So does Marjam Niknam, a second-year pharmacy student. She says the Shabbat programs have broadened her Jewish knowledge. She also appreciates getting the Jewish holidays off.
“That’s not something you get if you attend any other school,” said the 24-year-old Los Angeles native. “I went to Pierce [Community] College, and had a professor there who didn’t respect the fact that sometimes I couldn’t attend class. I had points knocked off, and I never forgot that.”
At the same time, Skarbek acknowledges, his non-Jewish friends at Touro sometimes wish they could use the library computers on a Friday night or Saturday afternoon.
“Some aren’t sure what to think about it,” he says. “But a lot of students are open to it and want to learn more about it. I came here thinking there would be a ton of Jewish people. It’s a small number, but I’m finding new ones every day.”
Over at Farragut Inn, the dining hall, mashgiach Yosef Plotkin prepares more than 130 kosher meals a day, keeping a steady eye on his three kitchens: milchig, fleishig and parve. Every table in the dining hall has white linen tablecloths, not just for aesthetics but to keep the place kosher — after all, crumbs from yesterday’s cheese enchilada shouldn’t mix with today’s chicken satay.
Touro’s strict adherence to Jewish principles can be traced back to one man, Bernard Lander, who founded the Touro colleges in 1971.
An ordained rabbi, Lander has served as a dean at New York’s Yeshiva University as well as vice president of the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America. His Touro campus system has sites in the United States, Germany, Russia and Israel. The Touro colleges offer degrees in a variety of fields, but every campus adheres to strict halachic guidelines.
Touro’s Mare Island campus occupies several former military buildings, including many preserved as state landmarks. One that remains unoccupied is the old hospital, a 69,000-square-foot behemoth that utterly dominates the campus landscape.
Someday, Kaye hopes to renovate it.
“Wouldn’t it be nice if we could put in a hospital/disaster readiness center to serve the Bay Area?” he says. “We have initiatives to support that vision, but it would take governmental partnering. It would be a boon for the community to get that going.”
The stolid architecture of the hospital recalls Mare Island’s glory days as the Navy’s oldest West Coast base.
Established in 1854, the Mare Island base turned out more than 500 ships, from pre-Civil War paddlewheel gunboats to nuclear submarines. David Farragut, famed for his battle cry “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!” was the base’s first commandant. At its height during World War II, Mare Island was home to more than 46,000 people.
But in 1993, the Department of Defense Base Realignment and Closure Commission recommended shuttering Mare Island.
Today the shipyard is a ghost town. Abandoned industrial warehouses line Railroad Avenue. Rusting cranes tower over the docks where sailors and stevedores once built America’s naval fleet. Today, this one-time hub of Vallejo’s economy seems little more than the roadkill of a relic age.
The closure nearly sunk the island’s economy and has had ongoing financial repercussions for the community.
Kaye says the university tries to help the local community whenever possible. The osteopathic students do rotations at local hospitals like Kaiser Permanente and staff a storefront clinic in Vallejo. Teacher trainees fulfill their student teacher requirements in the local schools, while pharmacy students intern in local hospitals and drug stores.
“A goal of Touro is to repair the world through health care and education,” Kaye says. “We try to breed a social consciousness. One of the things we look for in students is an altruistic streak, people who come in with a sense of mission and purpose.”
Though primarily supported by tuition, Touro applies for — and receives — research grants. One of Kaye’s pet projects is a $1.2 million clinical skills center designed to sharpen diagnostic abilities through hands-on practice (done by having actors take on the roles of assorted sick people).
But not all the money for the skills center — not to mention several expansion projects — is in place. So after years of lying low, the Bay Area’s only Jewish-sponsored university is looking to the Jewish community for support.
“We’re very respected in Solano County, but unfortunately this may be the poorest of the [Bay Area’s] nine counties, and there are few Jews here,” said Stanley Bresh, Touro’s director of institutional advancement. “So we’re looking to the Jewish community to help us fund things we need desperately.”
If the college can complete those projects, it will only help students like Skarbek, who graduates in 2011.
And though his family hopes he moves back to Chicago to launch his osteopathic practice, Skarbek isn’t so sure he wants to leave California.
Apparently the Bay Area good life has roped him in. “I’m going to yoga now and putting avocado on everything,” he says.
cover design | cathleen maclearie