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At UCLA, a New Approach to Jewish Studies

Education: Director Kenneth Reinhard is bringing the program out of its academic niche and attracting more students and supporters.


In the 18 months since being named director of UCLA's small Jewish studies program, Kenneth Reinhard has led an impressive retooling designed to bring the isolated academic niche into the scholarly mainstream.

He's successfully pushed for a reduction in the undergraduate requirements for Hebrew, added courses that explore the impact of Jewish culture on secular life, and developed new emphases for undergraduate majors, including Jewish law, American Jewish studies and Israel studies.

He also has attracted both non-Jewish professors and students to the UCLA Center for Jewish Studies' programs, expanded educational seminars for the community and landed more than $600,000 in grants.

"It's about rescuing Jewish studies from the status of minority studies--bringing it out of the ghetto," says Reinhard, 44, an associate professor at the university for 13 years. "It's not just about teaching Jews about Judaism, but about how Judaism has helped transform Western civilization."

It's a move that many university Jewish studies programs are making to stay in business because of the dwindling number of Jewish students. A major conference at Stanford University will explore the ramifications of this trend in April.

"If you're off to the side, you're going to become intellectually provincial quickly," Stanford professor Arnold Eisen said.

Reinhard's boss, Pauline Yu, dean of UCLA's humanities division, says, "He's been full of ideas for the center. By bringing in substantial amounts of funding, he must be doing something right."

From a distance of nearly 2,000 miles, Bernard M. Levinson, director of a similar program at the University of Minnesota, has watched Reinhard's progress with envy.

"I'm jealous as heck," he said. "I haven't seen any Jewish studies program that forward looking" in the United States.

The center also has held a series of high-profile conferences that have attracted international scholars from a variety of faiths.

For example, in April the center will host a "St. Paul and Modernity" conference, co-sponsored by Fuller Theological Seminary and the National Endowment for the Humanities. The slate of panelists, including French, Italian and Slovenian scholars, will discuss the writings of Christianity's most famous convert from Judaism.

As part of the center's community outreach, Reinhard has developed a six-month program on "The Legacy of Ten Commandments," in which rabbis, psychologists, priests, English professors, museum curators, and Christian and Islamic scholars delve into the modern implications of the ancient laws.

Sessions Draw

Community Members

The twice-monthly sessions at UCLA draw about 80 participants from the Los Angeles area, which has the nation's second-largest Jewish community. At the "Do Not Murder" seminar earlier this month, a rabbi and Islamic scholar talked about the commandment's effect on war, abortion, euthanasia and capital punishment.

"I needed insight into the Jewish head to understand my faith," said Jillian Le Patourel, a Christian who attends the sessions. "I needed to understand Jesus' Jewish roots. This is wonderful."

As part of the center's service, a car was sent for Esther Shapiro Horney, a 90-year-old Santa Monica resident who wanted to hear the seminar but couldn't drive at night.

"I feel I still need to get out while I'm still alive so I know what's going on," Horney said.

"Do Not Commit Adultery" is the topic for Thursday's session at the Center for Jewish Studies. It features a psychologist and a rabbi.

Reinhard is an unlikely figure to head UCLA's Center for Jewish Studies. Until nine years ago, he worked in academia strictly as a professor of English and comparative literature, never giving Judaism much thought.

His childhood spiritual roots were shallow. He was raised an "ultra-Reform" Jew, as he calls it, in the Chicago suburbs, attending a synagogue where no Hebrew was spoken and services were on Sunday.

"It was just like being in a Protestant church," he said. "It felt very alienating."

But in the early 1990s, after he and his wife, who live in Irvine, decided to raise their future children as Jews, he decided to get serious about his faith.

His wife, Julia Reinhard Luptona, a UC Irvine professor, converted to Judaism, and Reinhard found a spiritual brother in Rabbi Elie Spitz, who heads a Conservative synagogue in Tustin where the couple are now members.

"He showed me how amazingly interesting Judaism is," said Reinhard, who has a 5-year-old daughter and 2-year-old triplets. "It's not just the first half of Judeo-Christian culture. It's connected with so many other things--psychoanalysis, philosophy, literature, law."

A few years later, Reinhard found himself melding his new love for Jewish studies with his work in English and comparative literature.

"It was personal and academic at the same time," he said. "I never felt the two come together so profoundly."

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