By Christine Byrd

Orange County’s Jewish community is burgeoning, up to 100,000 strong – sizeable enough that the area has welcomed a Kosher restaurant and a second Jewish day school in recent years.

The UCI campus reflects this growth. In recent years, the School of Humanities launched a Center for Jewish Studies, in collaboration with the School of Social Sciences, to complement the minor in Jewish studies and growing coursework. In February, the UCI Langson Library will host the National Holocaust Museum’s, “Americans and the Holocaust: A Traveling Exhibition.” The center leadership now seeks to expand academic and programmatic offerings by establishing three endowed chairs and providing more robust support to students, the broader community, and international scholars.

“The idea of building and expanding Jewish studies at UCI is a reflection of the broader development of a growing and thriving Jewish life in Orange County,” says Matthias Lehmann, Teller Family Chair in Jewish History and founding director of the UCI Center for Jewish Studies.

Meeting the demand for Jewish studies coursework

Lehmann has witnessed the growing demand for Jewish studies coursework firsthand. Each year, his Holocaust class fills to its capacity of 120 students. While the course is popular among Jewish students, the enrollees reflect the diversity of the campus, coming from an array of ethnic and religious backgrounds, with many being the first in their family to attend college.

Alex Bennett, a drama major, is pursuing a minor in Jewish studies, an interdisciplinary program that introduces students to the many facets of Jewish cultures through the study of the history, philosophy, art, literature, languages, and social and political institutions of Jews from ancient to modern times.

“I’ve taken history, political science, European languages, classics and world religions, and that has also allowed me to be in classes with students who are not only interested in Jewish studies, but also have a variety of perspectives and backgrounds, which I think is important,” Bennett says.

Before coming to Irvine, Bennett connected with other Jewish UCI students online, and lined up a teaching job at a local synagogue. When she arrived on campus, she got involved with Hillel and Chabad of Irvine and joined UCI’s Jewish sorority Alpha Epsilon Phi. In spring of her first year, she enrolled in one of Lehmann’s classes and learned about the minor – which she immediately wanted to be part of.

“I’ve become more certain and attached to what being young and Jewish means to me,” she says. “I’ve found college to be a time where I’ve really been able to explore my own personal connection to Judaism in a way that I hadn’t in the past. It’s important to me, and a huge part of who I am.”

Now in her fourth year at UCI, Bennett is the president of OC Hillel and her sorority.

“The community here is so warm and welcoming, regardless of your background with Judaism or lack thereof,” she says. “It’s a place that I personally have felt really safe to explore and experiment and learn.”

Lehmann says the UCI Center for Jewish Studies aims to serve as a resource for students like Bennett.

“The idea is to empower students, including Jewish students, to know more about Jewish history and heritage, Israel, what antisemitism actually looks like, and how to understand where it comes from,” he says.

More graduate students with an interest in Jewish studies are also applying to UCI’s graduate programs. One draw has been an international essay contest the Center for Jewish Studies established in 2018, which drew entries from graduate students at Harvard and New York University as well as European and Israeli universities.

One of Lehmann’s newer doctoral scholars is Youngho Yoo, an international student from South Korea who majored in history at the University of Toronto and is interested in the history of French Jews. He was drawn to UCI by the opportunity to work with Lehmann, an expert in Mediterranean Jewish history, as well as the center’s resources.

“Because the Center for Jewish Studies is not just a history center, I can borrow ideas and connect my subject to other disciplines,” says Yoo, who also plans to apply for research funding from the center in the future.

Confronting antisemitism

This year, the UCI Center for Jewish Studies, supported by UCI’s Office of Inclusive Excellence, is piloting a fellowship program called Confronting Antisemitism. Nine undergraduates from various majors and backgrounds, including Bennett, were selected as fellows. Throughout the winter, the fellows participate in workshops about the history of antisemitism, and in the spring, they will lead campus outreach projects to raise awareness among their peers.

“The Confronting Antisemitism Fellows program reflects the urgency and relevance of the UCI Confronting Extremism Program. Launched in response to the violent extremism that took place in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017 which has only grown since then, the purpose of the Confronting Extremism Program is to mobilize the mission of the university to understand extremism and inform how we respond as individuals and as a community,” says Douglas M. Haynes, vice chancellor for equity, diversity and inclusion and professor of history. “Now more than ever, it is absolutely critical to confront hate, not look away or rationalize it away.”

Conversations about antisemitism on campus are not always easy ones, especially where it overlaps with student activism concerning Israel and Palestine. But faculty see the problem of antisemitism as a growing area of interest on a campus where the majority of students come from underrepresented ethnicities.

“The Jewish case is an emblematic minority case and can help us understand the larger question of how minorities can survive and thrive in a society,” says Jeffrey Kopstein, professor of political science. “Jewish studies helps bring cross-cultural understanding to campus.”

Kopstein is currently a fellow at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., where he’s using the world’s largest archive of Holocaust materials to research a new book on pogroms in Eastern Europe – an interest he developed after discovering his own family’s history as Jews in Russia and Poland. Kopstein studies the intersection of racism and violence, pointing out that humans have always lived side-by-side in communities with people they were prejudiced against, but only in rare cases has that translated to outright violence, like pogroms or the Holocaust. A UCI graduate student is currently using Kopstein’s methodology to study anti-Christian activities in a Muslim-majority country. 

Expanding engagement

To enhance the center’s work, Lehmann, Kopstein and their colleagues would like to see programming expand to support K-12 educators teaching about the Holocaust. In addition, UCI is fundraising for three endowed chairs: one in the study of antisemitism, which likely would be a first of its kind in the country; one in American Jewish studies, which would be of particular interest to UCI students who may not be Jewish but identify with a minority group; and one in Israeli studies, which would make permanent a position that is currently filled by a visiting faculty member from Israel each year.

Community support will be key. Lehmann holds the Teller Family Chair in Jewish History, which was the School of Humanities’ first endowed chair when it was created in 1991 with funding from Rita and Robert Teller along with other community members. Creating that chair helped establish Jewish studies as a permanent part of the UCI curriculum, says Lehmann.

“We wouldn’t be where we are today without the support of the community,” Lehmann says, “And building on that legacy of community support today will enable us to do even more.”

Community support has also been vital to funding student scholars’ research and experiential learning. For example, alumna Rebecca Sacks (M.F.A. ’19), with the help of grants from the UCI Center for Jewish Studies, visited Jerusalem twice to research and finish key chapters of her recently published novel, City of A Thousand Gates (HarperCollins, 2021). The widely praised novel features perspectives of Israeli, Palestinian, American, and European characters navigating modern life in the Holy City.

“To have people investing in your voice that early in your career, when you haven’t even published anything, is such a spiritual boost, and it made a huge difference for me, for sure,” Sacks says. “You can’t make art without funding.”

Through the center, Lehmann and Kopstein hope to both support the growing demand for Jewish studies, as well as train future generations of scholars and Anteaters like Sacks – not all of whom will go into academia, but will become leaders in education, nonprofits, think tanks and museums – to understand the rich complexity of Jewish history in the U.S. and around the world.

The growth of Jewish studies at UCI has greatly benefitted from community support. If you’d like to play a role in ensuring its continual progress, contact Linda Haghi, executive director of advancement, School of Humanities, lhaghi@uci.edu or 949.824.2923, or Tracy Arcuri, executive director of advancement, School of Social Sciences, tarcuri@uci.edu or 949.824.8093.

To learn more about the National Holocaust Museum’s, “Americans and the Holocaust: A Traveling Exhibition," visit here.

Pictured in the collage from left to right: Matthias Lehmann (credit: Steve Zylius), Alexandra Bennett (credit: Mariam Abbas), Jeffrey Kopstein (credit: UCI Social Sciences) and Rebecca Sacks (credit: Sarai Darmon).

Community engagement
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Jewish Studies