Faculty, staff and students recall the evolution of Jewish life at Stanford

It may have taken Stanford time to fully embrace its Jewish community, but today, the university boasts some of the best Jewish library collections, academic programs and student activities anywhere.

L.A. Cicero Event to mark the Jewish holiday of Sukkot

This 1999 photo shows a palm-roofed structure built on the grounds of the Old Union courtyard to mark the Jewish holiday of Sukkot.

If Stanford was once less than inclusive for Jewish faculty and students, it now boasts among the strongest Jewish library collections and Jewish studies programs anywhere, as well as a vibrant Jewish student community.

"It's a very exciting time to be a Jewish student at Stanford University," said senior engineering major Joe Gettinger at a recent presentation on Jewish life at Stanford, sponsored by the Stanford Historical Society and Hillel.

As evidence, Gettinger pointed to the growing number of student Jewish groups at Stanford, made possible by the community created around the Taube Hillel House and newly constructed Koret Pavilion, both part of the Ziff Center for Jewish Life located at the corner of Mayfield Avenue and Campus Drive East.

But it wasn't always that way.

A Protestant hegemony

Program panelists, including Gettinger, presented historical remembrances, personal anecdotes and descriptions of policy struggles that suggest Stanford was once, at worst, discriminatory toward and, at best, ambivalent about Jewish faculty and students. The discussion suggested that, although the university has been avowedly nondenominational from its beginnings, it has a deeply rooted Protestant hegemony that has proven historically challenging for Jewish faculty and students.

Besides Gettinger, the panel included moderator Robin Kennedy, who is part of the Jewish chaplaincy at Stanford Hospital and former president of the Hillel board of directors; Steven Zipperstein, the Daniel E. Koshland Professor in Jewish Culture and History; and Rabbi Patricia Karlin-Neumann, senior associate dean of the Office for Religious Life.

Kennedy outlined a chronology of Jewish history at Stanford that reflected a bumpy road on the way to today's religious pluralism.

Kosher food was not always available on campus. Christmas decorations once permeated official holiday events. The university's academic calendar once failed to accommodate the Jewish High Holy Days, including Rosh Hashanah. The office of the Hillel director was initially located over a tire shop in downtown Palo Alto. And, at one time, religious services could only take place in Memorial Church.

She recalled her own experience with discrimination. In 1968, she served as a student member of an admissions subcommittee of a university-wide study of education at Stanford. The-then dean of admission made a presentation to the committee during which Kennedy said the admissions dean acknowledged a Jewish undergraduate admission quota "without apology or embarrassment."

Kennedy also has had a hand in change. The first and only kosher cooperative at Stanford was established under a donation in her name and that of her husband, former president Donald Kennedy.

Building collections and programs

Zipperstein, who joined Stanford in 1991, said the university is now among the leading centers of Jewish studies in the world. But Zipperstein said he experienced the Stanford culture of the early 1990s as characterized by an "Adlai Stevenson liberalism," uncomfortable with any type of separatism.

As a result, Zipperstein said he and his colleagues focused on recruiting faculty members for Jewish studies who would fit into Stanford's academically collaborative culture.

"You have to integrate," Zipperstein said. "To build Jewish studies, everyone had to be able to intersect, to work with other centers."

Zipperstein also recalled his collaboration with University Librarian Michael Keller to augment the university's Jewish collections. They were not allowed, he said, to label their efforts a fundraising campaign. Nevertheless, they attracted enough support to purchase 15 major collections and create "one of the finest Jewish studies libraries in the world."

Shifting the calendar

Karlin-Neumann, who, in 1996, became the university's first non-Protestant religious dean, described the university's struggles to accommodate Jewish services on campus. Under anachronistic provisions of the Founding Grant, all religious services were confined to Memorial Church, which is filled with Christian symbolism.

In 1966, a Jewish student's request to hold a prayer service on campus to say Kaddish to memorialize his late father brought the simmering controversy to a head. One one side, Karlin-Neumann said, were trustees who believed they were handcuffed by the Founding Grant. On the other side were faculty, students and chaplains, many not Jewish, who supported change.

The controversy was resolved, she said, with the appointment of a new dean of Memorial Church, who cleverly reinterpreted the Founding Grant provision. Rather than think of the provision in geographic terms, he suggested thinking in terms of the auspices under which the service was held. With that reinterpretation, the university began to allow services, including Jewish services, to be held in venues other than Memorial Church.

Karlin-Neumann was instrumental in encouraging recognition of Jewish holidays in the university academic calendar. New Student Orientation (NSO) often conflicted with Rosh Hashanah, one of the High Holy Days marking the Jewish New Year.

Karlin-Neumann said she was advised that getting the university to shift the calendar was a "pipe dream." But in 2004, when Rosh Hashanah fell on the first day of NSO, the schedule was altered to ensure that students attending High Holy Day services would not miss critical events. Today, the High Holy Days are considered in the scheduling of NSO and the beginning of school. Where conflicts occur, events are often made non-mandatory so Jewish students can attend services.

Rapid change

Gettinger summarized the university's more recent progress by describing the difference between his mother's experience at Stanford and his own today.

"She was a member of the Class of 1969," he said. "She really didn't talk about her Judaism."

Today, many new student organizations are being created, Gettinger said, citing a klezmer band, a social action group and a group for Jewish students who are gay. As another example of change, he cited the opportunity to eat kosher meals three times a week at Florence Moore dining hall. Gettinger estimates about 10 percent of Stanford students are Jewish.

"The rate of change today is like nothing I have seen before," he said.