For years the Jews at San Francisco State University had wrangled with “rival” groups— sizeable, outspoken and often hostile Palestinian and African-American populations. So when Laurie Zoloth-Dorfman arrived this year as the second head of the school’s Jewish studies department, her predecessor virtually ousted by the Jewish establishment, she had more than just academic questions to juggle. Her task: to lead an uncomfortable Jewish population, to negotiate a truce, to satisfy the Jewish community that funds her post. So she taught about good and evil to an interreligious class. She urged her Jewish students to look into their sacred texts, and her non-Jewish students to turn Talmudic methods back on their own traditions. The assignment encompassed dual missions: to further Jewish scholarship while opening wide the door to outside scrutiny.
“A lot of us as [Jewish] adults need a basic introduction to these texts. But I also want to make sure that the beauty of the Talmud is not a treasure just for Jews, and that [San Francisco] State is a place where we talk about what it means to honor and teach about differences,” Zoloth-Dorfman explains diplomatically. “It’s a hard piece of work.”
So hard, in fact, that amid a furious controversy, her predecessor was forced to resign. Howard Eilberg-Schwartz, who served as the first head of the school’s fledgling Jewish Studies department, was something of a thorn in the side of the Jewish establishment. He expressed strong criticism of Israel and, as the magazine Lingua Franca reported, announced upon his arrival on campus that equating Zionism with racism is not necessarily anti-Semitic. Some had hoped that Eilberg-Schwartz, with his left-wing positions, would be able to mend the rifts between Jews and the school’s black and Palestinian communities, but he left in 1995 after the Jewish community that funded his post grew uncomfortable with his positions.
To take his place they found Zoloth- Dorfman, a secular-turned-Orthodox woman whose varied career in nursing, medical ethics, and Jewish scholarship has led her to conclude that a firm Jewish identity is the best place from which to reach out to non-Jewish students and faculty.
“To be a director of Jewish studies at a large complex university like this one, you have to feel yourself part of the leadership of the Jewish community, rather than in opposition to it,” she says.
Zoloth-Dorfman, an energetic 47- year-old, calls her approach to resolving past battles the “scholarship of engagement.” She has arranged funding for Lois Lyles, a black English professor, to teach a course on Holocaust literature. And last year, Zoloth-Dorfman co-taught a class with Erna Smith, the African-American head of State’s journalism department, about media depictions of blacks and Jews.
Zoloth-Dorfman says a strong friendship grew out of working together, and she hopes the course built similar relationships among students. “If people said awful things, they had to come back and look at each other,” she says. “I think slogging it out from week to week creates a sense of ceaseless responsibility.”
At Stanford, Rabbi Patricia Karlin-Neumann will face a similar balancing act as she takes over as the school’s first non- Protestant chaplain in the institution’s 105-year history.
“People said, ‘I don’t get it: What’s a rabbi doing at Memorial Church?'” she says. Rather than try to mold herself to the chaplaincy’s history, Karlin-Neumann took a new title—she is Associate Dean of Religious Life rather than of Stanford Memorial Church—and began striving to increase the profile of the school’s minority communities. As her initiation gift to the university, she presented a shofar, which she blew at a church ceremony. “For longtime Jewish members of the Stanford community, that moment marked quite a sea change,” says Karlin-Neuman, 42, who notes that a decade ago Hillel was a shoestring operation that met in a garage.
To date, the Reform rabbi’s clerical roles have been in Hillel posts. As a university employee, she will face the more nuanced task of negotiating the expectations of a Jewish community that wants her loyalty and the needs of a complex campus that will claim her simply as “chaplain.”
Karlin-Neumann’s approach lies in sharing a Jewish perspective with non- Jews. She preaches at Memorial Church several times a year and, like Zoloth- Dorfman, offers Jewish teachings to non-Jewish students. Last fall she counseled an Evangelical Christian student who was troubled by the literary approach to the Bible taken in her Western civilization course.
“She wanted to speak to a rabbi because she knew that Jews have been able to read these texts critically while at the same time preserving their faith,” Karlin-Neumann recalls. “I urged her to deepen her faith by accepting the challenge. . . . I think she felt comfortable talking to me. That’s what I like about this job.”