Illustration by Rivka Cohen
Assuming all other suitable conversation topics have been dealt with, sitting around a bar table, one might wonder aloud what the role of Jewish Studies is at a large public university. Is it to provide Jewish students with a religious foundation from which they can build their Jewish adulthood? Or is it more aligned with other majors in the humanities, namely to build critical thinking and problem-solving skills while focusing on a specific area of academia? A Jewish Studies course’s place at the university points to the latter, since the goal would be to procure a Bachelor of Arts. The topic of Jewish Studies itself, however, and the reason why people are drawn to the subject matter, is not always so clear cut, or starkly academic.
Jewish Studies at UCLA has had a long and intricate path, beginning with a small Hebrew major in 1959 and leading to the present day with a $5 million dollar endowment to expand the Center for Jewish Studies. Prior to 1972, the Hebrew major, housed in the Department of Near Eastern Languages, was the only remotely Jewish academic offering at UCLA. According to a May 1972 edition of Ha’Am, due to popular demand, the Jewish Studies major was approved in March of 1972 in order to “provide the student with the opportunity to complement his study of Hebrew with the investigation of other areas in Judaism, such as history, philosophy, and sociology.”
In 1972, Arnold Band, one of the program’s four faculty advisors, told Ha’Am that “The major focus of the Jewish Studies Major will not be to engage in the problem of solving questions of contemporary Jewish identity or to shape a particular position towards Judaism and the Jewish people. Rather such issues will constitute only one aspect in the total program.”
In the early days of the Jewish Studies major, Hillel at UCLA also played a significant role in educating Jewish students, seeing that the major’s mission was academic rather than personal or spiritual in nature. Since coming to Hillel at UCLA in 1975, Executive Director Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller recalled that the Jewish Federation of Los Angeles sponsored a program through Hillel called the Free Jewish University, which offered classes on a range of Jewish subjects, some of which were taught by graduate students of the department.
“In those years,” Rabbi Chaim remembered with a half-smile, “Hillel was an important facilitator for Jewish Studies before Jewish Studies became as prominent as it later did.”
Rabbi Chaim leaned back in his chair and crossed his hands over his chest, relaying the myriad of programs that Hillel at UCLA sponsored for both students and faculty.
Sighing, Rabbi Chaim admits that since then, “The campus has changed, the community has changed, and I would say that students are less interested in those sorts of public lectures. Hillel has also changed. As the Jewish Studies major became more established and the Center developed, Hillel’s programming became more student-oriented. The nature of the Hillel organization changed from being heavily weighted intellectually to being more experiential, and also from being a staff-driven operation to a student-initiated program.”
A constant give and take, the relationship between Hillel at UCLA and the Center for Jewish Studies continues until this day, with a plethora of events co-sponosored and facilitated by both organizations.
In 1994, the Center for Jewish Studies was established by Provost Brian Copenhaver of the UCLA College of Letters and Sciences under the administration and support of Dean Pauline Yu. Band served as the Center’s founding director, followed by Kenneth Reinhard, David N. Myers, Acting Director Carol Bakhos, and current Director Todd Presner.
Today, according to the Center for Jewish Studies’ website, “the Center has 28 affiliated faculty from more than ten disciplines, offering nearly 70 undergraduate and graduate courses in Jewish studies annually, enrolling more than 2,000 students. The Center sponsors more than 50 lectures, workshops and conferences each year, as well as supporting civic engagement and service learning programs that address wide-ranging policy, community and social justice issues.”
The next step for the Center is one made possible by a generous $5 million dollar gift from Alan Leve, a UCLA alumnus and the founder and president of Culver City, California-based Omega Technologies. In honor of Leve’s gift, the Center has been renamed the Alan D. Leve Center for Jewish Studies.
Leve admits that he was inspired to donate based on his late grandmother’s boundless generosity. The Alan D. Leve Center for Jewish Studies reports that “Leve still vividly remembers the cold and rainy day in 1941 when he left the Breed Street Shul in Los Angeles’ Boyle Heights neighborhood for his grandmother’s funeral. He was amazed at the sight outside the car window: rows of mourners standing shoulder to shoulder for three city blocks on each side of the street, umbrellas over their heads, to pay their last respects.”
“It’s a memory indelibly etched in my mind,” said Leve, now 87. “It was a revelation to me. My grandmother had no fame, no material assets of any value, but everyone gravitated to her because of her warmth and generosity of spirit. I realized then that who you are is more important than what you have.”
The gift will be divided into several endowments:
° The Alan D. Leve Endowment for Student Excellence will be used to fund
graduate and undergraduate students engaged in fields related to Jewish studies at UCLA, including graduate fellowships, undergraduate awards and stipends for student travel and summer research projects.
° The Alan D. Leve Endowment for Teaching Innovation will support teaching
and curricular innovation in Jewish studies. It also will establish the Etta and Milton Leve Scholar-in-Residence program, which will bring academics from across the world to UCLA and foster international collaborations.
° The Alan D. Leve Endowment for Research Innovation will support faculty
and graduate student research and provide travel and research grants and conference support.
In addition, a portion of the gift will be used to establish the Hinda and Jacob Schonfeld Boyle Heights Collection, which, in collaboration with the UCLA Library, will include archival materials and artifacts related to the history of Boyle Heights.
Presner told the UCLA Newsroom that “Alan Leve’s gift will enable us to launch a vibrant public history initiative, support undergraduate and graduate students working in all fields of Jewish studies, initiate programs supporting Jewish life on campus, attract international scholars to UCLA and provide vital research and teaching support to our faculty. This gift will secure UCLA’s standing as a preeminent Center for the study of Jewish history, culture and civilization.”
Gone are the days when students needed to decide between studying Judaism in academia and Judaism in personal life. Today, a multitude of Jewish organizations provide the Jewish life experience and education, while the Alan D. Leve Center for Jewish Studies is free to forge ahead and participate in research and scholarship alongside the rest of the university. After a 56-year-long journey, beginning with a modest Hebrew major in 1959, Leve’s gift is helping to propel Jewish Studies at UCLA firmly into the future and cement its existence and influence for generations to come.