UC Berkeley Center for Jewish Studies set to open at month’s end

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UC Berkeley’s Center for Jewish Studies will open in Dwinelle Hall at the end of October, bringing together faculty and students from a range of academic fields to examine Jewish beliefs and culture from an interdisciplinary perspective.

UC Berkeley has pledged $1 million in startup funds for the center, which was announced by Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost George Breslauer on Oct. 16. An additional $8 million has already been provided by the campus in endowed funds for three endowed chairs, a postdoctoral fellowship, graduate fellowships and two lectures for the Jewish studies program.

The Center for Jewish Studies will allow doctoral students working toward degrees in other fields to specialize in Jewish studies through a “designated emphasis” coordinated by the center. Although the campus already offers a graduate program in Jewish studies, the center is looking to attract students in other disciplines to place an emphasis on the field.

Robert Alter, founding director and a UC Berkeley professor emeritus of Hebrew and comparative literature, estimates the center will serve about 30 graduate students.

The center will also be serving undergraduates through a Jewish studies minor and undergraduate courses in the field. Although the minor is already offered by the campus, Alter said the program hopes to attract more students with the establishment of the center.

“There are actually quite a few (undergraduate courses) offered every semester, but they’re quite scattered throughout the campus,” Alter said. “One thing the center will do is coordinate all these things and publicize them. We hope that we can expand the basis of undergraduate interest in Jewish studies and in that way beef up the minor.”

If things go well, he added, the campus may offer a major in Jewish studies in a few years.

Both Alter and professor of law Kenneth Bamberger, who will be serving as the co-chair for the Center for Jewish Studies, said the campus was not starting from scratch in creating a strong Jewish studies program. UC Berkeley is already host to the Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life and the Berkeley Institute for Jewish Law and Israeli Law, Economy and Society.

“There was a sense that there was a missing piece to the puzzle,” Bamberger said. “What the center does is it clicks all those other pieces into place into a much larger tapestry.”

The center will be serving students like Ma’ayan Sela, a doctoral student in comparative literature who is hoping to incorporate Jewish studies into her program through the center’s designated emphasis.

“I’m excited meet a community of people who wouldn’t necessarily have anything to do with each other if it weren’t for the center,” she said.

Graduate students will have the opportunity to apply to the designated emphasis later in the semester. The inaugural lecture will be given by Alter at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism on Oct. 30.

Contact Tahmina Achekzai at [email protected].