New Center for Jewish Studies an important step forward

This week, U.C. Berkeley announced the establishment of the Center for Jewish Studies, launched with a $1 million seed grant from the chancellor’s office.

As described in our cover story on page 7, the new center will act as a central address for Cal’s already rich menu of related course offerings, faculty members, researchers and visiting scholars working in various fields.

We don’t want to overstate what’s happening. There will be no new building or new faculty hires — for now. The center will not offer an undergraduate major in Jewish studies — again, for now.

But the significance of this center’s creation is tremendous. It demonstrates the university’s commitment to the field of Jewish studies in no uncertain terms.

With this center, Jewish studies joins the large family of other ethnic studies at Cal, notably the Center for Middle Eastern Studies, established in 1963; the department of Near Eastern studies, founded in 1894; and the department of ethnic studies itself, established some 40 years ago and offering undergraduate majors in Asian American, Chicano/Latino and Native American studies, as well as comparative ethnic studies.

In addition, U.C. Berkeley now joins Stanford, San Francisco State, U.C. Davis, and U.C. Santa Cruz, all of which offer strong Jewish studies options, to cement the Bay Area’s reputation as one of the world’s premiere locations for Jewish studies and scholarship.

It may be premature to put Cal’s Jewish studies center on a par with these other long-standing programs and departments. There is still no Jewish studies department at Cal, despite longtime efforts to create one. Undergrads must settle for a Jewish studies minor, in place since 2005, while doctoral candidates can at best “emphasize” Jewish studies in their Ph.D. And the funding for the new center, though generous on the chancellor’s part, does not match that enjoyed by its better-established academic “siblings.”

Still, the fact that it exists is a much-needed corrective, and a happy harbinger of more to come. According to organizers, the center should help attract top-notch students, both undergraduate and graduate, as well as scholars. It will enhance the visibility of Jewish studies at this great university, and underline the value placed on Jewish studies by Cal’s administration and the entire U.C. Board of Regents.

And for that, and more, we say bravo, and mazel tov to the new Center for Jewish Studies at U.C. Berkeley.