Illustration featuring Star of David

She may only be a college sophomore, but Nova Sari knows exactly what she wants. While still in high school, she created a nonprofit called Do Not Hate. Realizing that most teens knew little about the Holocaust and antisemitism, Sari hopes to develop new tools to reach a younger audience.

The computer science/informatics major chose UCI not just because it has a Jewish studies program, but because Matthias Lehmann, Teller Family Chair in Jewish History and founding director of the UCI Center for Jewish Studies, is an expert in Sephardic/Ladino studies.

Sari, who is of Turkish Sephardic Jewish heritage, wants to “combine two different worlds” – computers and Judaism – by creating digital histories about the Sephardic Jewish culture.

For every student in the Jewish studies program, there is a story, and classes usually have a waiting list. “There is a lot of interest among UCI students, most of whom are not Jewish,” says Lehmann, professor of history. “Some take the classes to fulfill requirements and then develop an interest in continuing to learn, while others are curious about Jewish history and culture and the reasons behind antisemitism.”

Recognizing the growing Jewish population in Orange County and wishing to promote understanding between cultures, UCI’s School of Humanities launched the Center for Jewish Studies in 2017. It complements the minor in Jewish studies, provides growing coursework, and educates the campus and the community through collaborations.

Now, with a $4 million matching pledge from philanthropists and longtime campus supporters Susan and Henry Samueli – his parents were both Holocaust survivors – UCI will increase programming to support K-12 educators teaching about the Holocaust; fund two more endowed chairs – one in the study of contemporary antisemitism and one in Israeli studies; and partner with universities in Israel to bring scholars to campus.

“The Samueli grant will have a double impact: for the 30,000 students at UCI, as well as for the community,” Lehmann says. “It will show people that UCI is a good place for Jewish students and will educate other students about Judaism while building structures that will put UCI in a much better place to combat antisemitism by educating the community.”

Focusing on the Positive

Lehmann, whose interest in Jewish studies was sparked by a trip to Israel with his parents when he was 16, notes that the program at UCI began with the 1991 establishment of the Teller Family Chair in Jewish History, the School of Humanities’ first endowed chair. At the time, there was someone teaching Jewish history but not a concerted effort to grow the program. The Jewish studies minor was created more than 15 years later, in 2007.

When Lehmann, a scholar of modern European and Mediterranean Jewish history, arrived in 2012, UCI was actively trying to give Jewish studies a more significant presence in the School of Humanities. The Center for Jewish Studies, established in 2017, became a hub for students and faculty with an interest in bringing Jewish studies offerings together, Lehmann says, and vitalized the program, which now includes affiliated faculty from various departments. In addition to existing faculty in history, comparative literature, English and political science, the School of Humanities recently authorized a new position in the study of Sephardic/Mizrahi Jewry.

Lehmann teaches a course on the Holocaust that’s filled to capacity each year. “In the class, we always emphasize that it’s not just something that happened in Europe years ago,” he says, “but that it has deep roots, and democracy can be fragile. … It’s still relevant. There are so many lessons we can learn.”

He also teaches a class on antisemitism, which the Anti-Defamation League defines as: “belief or behavior hostile toward Jews just because they are Jewish. It may take the form of religious teachings that proclaim the inferiority of Jews, for instance, or political efforts to isolate, oppress or otherwise injure them. It may also include prejudiced or stereotyped views about Jews.” The course traces the roots of antisemitism and how it has changed over the centuries. In addition, Lehmann has brought in speakers from the ADL to give students an opportunity to learn how antisemitism relates toanti-Zionism.

Jeffrey Kopstein’s class “Jews and Politics/Jews and Power” goes “all the way back to antiquity, with the Jewish people having and losing sovereignty, being in the diaspora and regaining sovereignty,” says the professor of political science. He adds that Jewish texts help students imagine being a minority and fighting for security, as in the Book of Esther; searching for citizenship and membership in medieval society; and eventually founding the state of Israel.

One element of the course is learning about the first recorded pogrom against Jews in Alexandria, Egypt, in 38 B.C. When students read about modern pogroms, they see the same factors and wonder why people are antisemitic, says Kopstein, who was a recent fellow at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., where he researched a new book on pogroms in Eastern Europe.

“Classes like this give students a much more sophisticated understanding of the origins of Zionism and why the Jewish state is where it is,” Kopstein says. “The point is to read difficult texts and discuss them to understand Jews, Judaism and the Jewish experience in order to promote cross-cultural understanding.”

He adds, “This is a scholarly course, not advocacy, but when students witness antisemitism, they understand what it is.” In 2020, Kopstein conducted a student survey about antisemitism on the UCI campus and concluded that it’s no worse than anywhere else, that it reflects the same attitudes as society at large, and that there is “a modest but statistically significant correlation between antisemitic and anti-Israel attitudes.”

Alon Burstein, visiting assistant professor of political science from Israel, teaches two classes per year on his home country, including social movements. He also teaches two classes per year on terrorism, looking at it through the prism of social movement theory, which posits that groups change or evolve because of repression, competition or other factors. In the former, students are required to find a news item and give a presentation. According to Burstein, they are “reactive to what goes on but not in a disruptive way.” He says he was “pleasantly surprised” that Jewish and non-Jewish students alike “want to challenge assumptions and want to learn, not be troublemakers.” His course syllabi have a disclaimer: “Few countries garner as much emotion as Israel. Don’t let your opinion get in the way of learning. Let knowledge fit into what you think.”

The UCI Jewish studies program also works with Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life. Rabbi Daniel Levine, Orange County Hillel director and UCI Jewish studies lecturer, offers a class on major Jewish texts, including the Torah, the Talmud, those by medieval writers and scholars, and those rooted in modern movements. “The class communicates the richness, depth and complexities of Judaism,” he says. “Judaism is more complex than just a religion. We discuss it in ethnic, religious and nationalistic terms.”

Levine believes that college is a microcosm of U.S. society, which has seen an alarming rise in antisemitism. “My approach as part of the Jewish studies program and Hillel is to focus on the positive,” he says. “We want Jewish students to think of their Jewish identity as a positive aspect of Judaism and Israel that serves as their buffer and shield, and we want other students to learn about the richness of the culture.”

Education and Outreach Efforts

According to Rodrigo Lazo, professor of English and interim vice chancellor for equity, diversity and inclusion, UCI is “driven by a powerful vision of inclusion, and to that end, we support ongoing education for all members of the campus.

“For two years, the Office of Inclusive Excellence has offered education modules that everyone on campus, including staff, can take to consider and think through the issues raised by contemporary examples of hate and its effects on various groups in society,” he continues. “Keeping connections with people in various communities who are living through the challenges created by xenophobia, racism and antisemitism can inform our approach to educating our students so that during their time here at UCI and after graduation, they can better understand and respond to those challenges.”

With support from the Office of Inclusive Excellence, UCI’s Center for Jewish Studies in 2021-22 began a fellowship program called Confronting Antisemitism. Nine undergraduates from various majors and backgrounds, including Alex Bennett, a drama major who graduated last year with a minor in Jewish studies, were selected as fellows. Throughout the winter, they participated in workshops about the history of antisemitism, and in the spring, they led campus outreach projects to raise awareness among their peers.

Bennett, who now works for Hillel at the University of Delaware, grew up as an observant Jew and was excited to find the Jewish studies program at UCI. She thought it was “wonderful to be a Jewish student at UCI, which was a small, tightly knit community.” She adds: “My experiences at UCI gave me the opportunity to start to intentionally discover what my identity was and figure out what it meant to me.”

In another outreach program, UCI’s Center for Jewish Studies and Office of Inclusive Excellence joined the Jewish Federation of Orange County and the Anti-Defamation League in hosting “Driving Out Darkness,” a one-day immersive learning summit for leaders across all sectors of the Orange County community, including civic, government, nonprofit, faith-based, education, media and law enforcement. “It was important to have this event at UCI to show that we recognize the antisemitism problem across the political spectrum and understand how it’s related to other forms of hate,” says Lehmann, who was a speaker at the August program, attended by more than 300 people.

“Antisemitism is the core of many forms of hate and the decay of democratic institutions,” said Erik Ludwig, president and CEO of the Jewish Federation of Orange County, at the event. “As a result, we all have a stake in fighting it, just as we must combat hate of all kinds. History shows us time and again that antisemitism is closely linked to other forms of hate and that increasing rates of anti-Jewish activity threaten every community in society as well as our democratic institutions.”

In another collaborative effort, the Center for Jewish Studies is working with the UCI History Project – which provides an institutional framework between UCI’s Department of History and K-12 history/social science teachers in Orange County – to develop content about the Holocaust. According to Nicole Gilbertson, site director of the UCI History Project, the objectives are to support K-12 teachers with professional learning opportunities, provide models of literacy instruction so students can read and write like historians, and share relevant and engaging primary sources. The project organizes learning opportunities for educators based on current research and disciplinary methods.

Last year, Gilbertson collaborated with Lehmann on the UCI Libraries’ “Americans and the Holocaust” exhibition in the lobby of the campus’s Jack Langson Library. It was one of 50 U.S. libraries – and the only one in Southern California – selected to host “Americans and the Holocaust,” a traveling installation based on a special exhibition at the U.S.  Holocaust Memorial Museum. It drew on a collection of primary sources to examine the motives, pressures and fears that shaped Americans’ responses to Nazism, war and genocide in Europe during the 1930s and 1940s. Says Gilbertson, “Our goal is to create opportunities for hope, try to move forward based on what we know, and look at the past in a way that improves the future.”

UCI students have also created programs with far-reaching appeal. In January 2022, Sari spearheaded a hybrid event called “Holocaust Remembrance and Anti-Semitism” with nine speakers. Sponsored by the Center for Jewish Studies, the presentations were on YouTube, with a live audience of 100 people per day. Lehmann’s objectives for the Center for Jewish Studies are to make it larger, make it more cohesive and build it for the long term. “I want to turn it into a campus center that can serve more effectively with humanities at its core while incorporating additional disciplines including languages, film and media, as well as social sciences and social ecology,” he says.

He seeks to develop strategic partnerships with Israeli universities, create a permanent presence for Israeli studies and have an endowed Jewish studies chair in the political science department. In addition, Lehmann intends to boost K-12 outreach and enhance relationships with the larger community.

“We realize that there is so much more that we need to do,” he says, “and the Samueli matching grant gives us a unique opportunity to do it.”