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Press Release: New Center for Jewish Studies launched

By Gretchen Kell | UCB Media Relations
Saturday October 19, 2013 - 09:45:00 AM

A new Center for Jewish Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, announced on Wednesday by Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost George Breslauer, will bring together faculty, students and visiting scholars for research and debate across Jewish studies’ wide academic landscape.

The vibrant new hub on campus will coordinate both a new “designated emphasis” that allows Ph.D. students to specialize in Jewish studies while earning a degree from a range of disciplines, and a Jewish studies undergraduate minor.

Breslauer said the new center “builds upon UC Berkeley’s long tradition of leadership in the study of Jewish literature, history and rabbinics, providing institutional capacity to deepen these strengths programmatically and to greatly expand our offerings.”

UC Berkeley has pledged $1 million to the center, which will report to the Office of the Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost. In addition, the campus already has more than $8 million in endowed funds for Jewish studies that provides for three endowed chairs, a postdoctoral fellowship, graduate fellowships and two annual lectures.

“The campus is fully committed to the center’s growth and success,” said UC Berkeley Chancellor Nicholas Dirks. “The center will expand the breadth and depth of Jewish studies scholarship here, connect more students to the wealth of Jewish studies resources across the campus, and enrich the university’s engagement with the Jewish community in the Bay Area and beyond.”

The center will formally open on Oct. 30 in its new office space in Dwinelle Hall. A center administrator will be added in November, and graduate students can begin applying for the designated emphasis later this semester.

Among the existing resources at UC Berkeley for students in Jewish studies are the Israeli studies and Jewish law programs at the Berkeley Institute for Jewish Law and Israeli Law, Economy and Society; the Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life; the Berkeley Hillel Jewish Student Center; and the UC Berkeley Library’s famous Judaica collection, as well as its Yiddish and Hebrew language holdings.

Robert Alter, UC Berkeley professor emeritus of Hebrew and comparative literature and an internationally-renowned scholar and translator of Hebrew literature and the Bible, has been named the center’s founding director. He will deliver the inaugural lecture for the center on Wednesday, Oct. 30, at 6 p.m. at the Graduate School of Journalism in North Gate Hall. The event is open to the public.

“Inaugurating this center at UC Berkeley is nothing less than a landscape-shifting development – for our students, our faculty and the community at large,” Alter said.

Jill Stoner, UC Berkeley professor of architecture, will be the center’s first chair and its chair of graduate programs. Kenneth Bamberger, UC Berkeley professor of law, will co-chair the center and direct the undergraduate program.

The center will emphasize an interdisciplinary agenda through its graduate and undergraduate programs. Currently, about 20 doctoral students in a wide range of departments have research that overlaps with Jewish studies. Many of these students may choose to pursue the newly inaugurated designated emphasis in Jewish studies in addition to their primary doctoral subject.

The center’s 12-member faculty represents 10 departments and schools on campus: comparative literature; Near Eastern Studies; history; sociology; music; German; journalism; architecture; law; and theater, and dance and performance studies. However, undergraduates in any department can choose to minor in Jewish studies.

“By providing support for the undergraduate minor, we hope to attract more students to the many courses related to Jewish studies offered in a variety of departments across the campus. That, in turn, will help us to assess the future potential for an undergraduate major in Jewish studies,” said Bamberger.

Stoner said the campus will attract even more of “the very best students in the country” to its Jewish studies program as the center actively works to highlight its top scholars, cultural resources and events.

The Jewish studies program at UC Berkeley long has been regarded as one of the world’s leading graduate programs in the field, and its Ph.D. students regularly have become faculty members at major universities in the United States and Israel. It also is known for its expertise in the study and teaching of both religious and secular texts, including ancient, Late Antiquity, modern, Hebrew, Aramaic and Yiddish materials.

The center will serve additionally as an important site for programs and collaborations that engage other departments and units on campus, as well as the Bay Area Jewish community.

According to Breslauer, the campus is dedicated to building a strong foundation for the center that will allow for future expansion of its reach and agenda. “The university’s investment is just the beginning,” he said. “We will be working hard to gain the support necessary to fully realize all of the dreams and aspirations we have for the center.”

At Stanford University, Steven Zipperstein, the Daniel E. Koshland Professor in Jewish Culture and History, said the Center for Jewish Studies is a welcome addition to UC Berkeley and the Bay Area.

“UC Berkeley has long enjoyed a reputation as a distinguished center of Jewish learning with among the finest faculty in North America in literature, the Bible, history, the Talmud and other fields,” he said. “News of the creation of a center that will help nurture and deepen the intellectual lives of its students and faculty, and no doubt contribute to the cultural life of the Bay Area as a whole, can only be applauded.”


· Center for Jewish Studies website 

· Q&A with Robert Alter