Being Jewish
in the West

 

USC’s new Institute for the Study of Jews in American Life focuses on contemporary issues in Jewish life in the western United States, setting it apart from programs that look at Judaism from a historical or religious perspective.


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Barry Glassner, Director of the Institute for the Study of Jews in American Life
Ever since the Diaspora scattered Jews across the globe, the notion of “Jewish culture” has been a little hard to pin down. There are Eastern European Jews, Middle Eastern Jews, Ethiopian Jews and – oh, yes – American Jews.
But what is an American Jew?
An eclectic group of scholars has set out to try to define that slippery concept, with particular emphasis on the West. To speed their efforts, the university has established an interdisciplinary research center – the Institute for the Study of Jews in American Life – whose mission is to explore the evolution of the Jewish community in the Western United States.
In doing so, USC is carving out an unusual niche for itself, says institute director Barry Glassner, a professor of sociology at the university.
“There are many excellent Jewish study centers at American and other universities,” he says, “but their focus is mainly on historical and religious research. Our priorities are current issues, with emphasis on the West.”

“There are now more than 922,000 Jews in California alone,” adds economist Morton Owen Schapiro, dean of the College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, who is one of the institute’s founders. “Their number in the Western United States has tripled since 1970.”
However, most studies of American Jewish life have concentrated on New York and the northeastern states, where half of all U.S. Jews still live. But, Schapiro and Glassner say, there is a distinctive Western Jewish identity, different from Eastern and Midwestern Jews.
Jews have played a vital role in shaping the politics, culture, commerce and character of this region. Using the institute as a think tank, researchers and community leaders can now begin the interesting task of analyzing the ongoing contributions of American Jews to West Coast arts, business, media, literature, education, politics and law.
The institute is also slated to study the relationships between the area’s Jewish communities and other groups, such as African Americans, Latinos, Asian Americans and Arab Americans. Some other proposed activities include community-based inter-ethnic dialogue groups coordinated by institute-affiliated researchers, a summer undergraduate study and internship program, publication of scholarly and popular books and journals, and special programs and interdepartmental events to educate USC undergraduates about the American Jewish experience.

Created in collaboration with Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, the new institute will work closely with USC’s Hillel Jewish Center.
When the institute was first proposed, university officials were amazed at the groundswell of support among faculty. About 50 USC professors signaled their interest in getting involved with the project.
That really shouldn’t be so surprising, organizers say, since fully a third of USC’s deans and faculty are Jewish, and so is 10 percent of its student body.
The institute’s core faculty is composed of USC and HUC scholars from more than a dozen disciplines, including Rabbi Susan Laemmle, USC dean of religious life; Warren Bennis, professor of finance and business economics; Solomon Wolf Golomb, professor of mathematics and electrical engineering systems; Selma Reuben Holo, director of USC’s Fisher Gallery and Museum Studies Program; Michael Renov, professor of cinema-television; Morton Owen Schapiro, dean of the College of Letters, Arts and Sciences and vice president for planning; and Ruth Weisberg, dean of the School of Fine Arts.


 

 

 

Glassner Photo by Irene Fertik

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