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SDSU's Jewish Studies Program looks ahead to expanded offerings

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By Donald H. Harrison

Donald H. Harrison

SAN DIEGO—It has been four years since Lawrence Baron was succeeded by Risa Levitt Kohn as head of the Jewish Studies Program at San Diego State University, but he’ll be back at the helm—temporarily—this upcoming academic year while Kohn takes a sabbatical in Israel where she’ll work with that nation’s antiquities department.   Kohn, many people will recall, had served as the curator of the successful six-month long  Dead Sea Scrolls exhibition at the Natural History Museum in Balboa Park.

Lawrence Baron

Baron, in addition to being a professor of Jewish history, serves as the SDSU history department’s advisor to graduate students—a role he’ll continue even as he serves as interim director of the Jewish Studies program.

Coincidentally, this academic year will also mark the 40th anniversary of Jewish studies becoming an official academic “minor” at San Diego State University, and the 25th anniversary of the inception of a formal Jewish studies program on the campus.   These two anniversaries will be commemorated with a series of lectures by Baron and two other members of the program: June Cummins, who specializes in American Jewish literature, and Yale Strom, a klezmer musician and documentary film maker.  The dates for the lecture series are still being decided.

San Diego State University officials report that the campus serves the largest Jewish population south of Los Angeles and the 28th largest Jewish population in the country.  The Jewish Studies Program offers a major in Modern Jewish Studies or a minor in Jewish Studies stretching from the biblical period to the present day.

In November, the Jewish Studies Program will sponsor a talk at the San Diego Jewish Book Festival at the Lawrence Family JCC by author Roger Kamenetz, a religious scholar best known for his book The Jew in the Lotus.  Kamenetz’s topic at the festival will deal with two “troubled and beloved” Jewish figures – Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav and Franz Kafka, “both of whom left strict instructions that their unpublished works be burnt after their deaths,” according to Baron.

A Jewish community professional whose name formerly had been all but synonymous with the Jewish Book Festival and other cultural programming of the JCC — Jackie S.  Gmach—has been hired by SDSU to direct its new outreach and fundraising program “Friends of Jewish Studies. ”   

Another addition to the Jewish Studies Program is this year’s visiting Israeli professor – Oren Meyers of the Department of Communications of the  University of Haifa.  His academic specialty is the Israeli media, with one of his more recent publications being “Prime Time Commemoration: An Analysis of Television Broadcasts on Israel’s Memorial Day for the Holocaust and the Heroism.”  Besides teaching at San Diego State, Meyers will be giving talks about Israel and its media around the community.

Baron said that he hopes to bring outside speakers on Jewish topics regularly to the campus next year – a .practice that he said had been the impetus for the creation of the Western Jewish Studies Association, an organization of academics that will hold its convention next April 10-11 in San Diego.  Baron currently serves as president of that organization.

Other planned lecture series in the county include “Israel in the 21st Century” which under a grant from the Leichtag Family Foundation will be conducted at two libraries in North County, those in Vista and in Encinitas. Baron said it is now being explored whether the same lecture series also could be presented at Cal State San Marcos.

“Israel in the 21st Century” additionally will be presented at Congregation Beth Israel in the spring, and will include lectures by Meyers, Steven Spiegel of UCLA and Samuel Edelman, the executive director of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East.

Faculty members in SDSU’s Jewish Studies Program include Baron, Cummins, Meyers, Strom, and  Veronica Shapovalov, who under the auspices of the Russian department teaches a course in 20th Century Russian and Eastern European Culture.  In the language department are Zev Bar-Lev, who created an imaginative syllabus for teaching Hebrew, and Ilana Schuster, who uses that methodology to teach conversational Hebrew.

Some of Kohn’s teaching duties during her sabbatical are being taken over by Dr. Yehuda Shabatay, a professor at Palomar College and  former director of San Diego’s Bureau of Jewish Education (prior to the time the Bureau became the Agency).   Additionally, Rabbi Scott Meltzer of Ohr Shalom Synagogue will be teaching a course in Hebrew Scriptures.

Saying that it will be “a busy year,” Baron noted that Strom, the Jewish Studies Program’s  “Musician in Residence” plans to appear in a concert entitled “Common Chords 3”  with Pakistani musician Salman Ahmad to explore common roots of Jewish and Islamic music.

Additionally, Baron said, the Leichtag Family Foundation has donated start-up funds to the Jewish Studies program and the Religious Studies Department for an  interdisciplinary Institute of Moral Courage, to “encourage the examination and study of a range of issues related to the study of moral courage under the broader rubric of contemporary global ethics.”

Is Baron busy enough?  Known as one of the world’s leading scholars on films dealing with the Holocaust (he was called to Yad Vashem to lecture on his book, Projecting the Holocaust Into the Present), Baron said he has another book soon to be published by Brandeis University: The Wandering View: Modern Jewish Experiences in World Cinema.

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Harrison is editor of San Diego Jewish World

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