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Celebrating Jewish American Heritage Month at UC Berkeley

Read the campus message from Vice Chancellor Dania Matos and other leaders

hebrew scrolls in a display cases
Artwork at the Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life (Uc Berkeley photo by Keegan Houser)

Vice Chancellor for Equity and Inclusion Dania Matos; Ethan Katz, associate professor of history and Jewish studies and chair of the Chancellor’s Advisory Committee on Jewish Life & Campus Climate; Benjamin E. Hermalin, vice provost for the faculty; Stephen C. Sutton, vice chancellor for student affairs and Eugene Whitlock, chief people and culture officer, sent the following message to the campus community: 

During the month of May, our campus will be celebrating Jewish American Heritage Month, which pays tribute to the generations of Jewish Americans who have contributed greatly to the history and culture of America. The occasion coincides with the commemoration of the Holocaust and Israel’s Independence Day. This is the first time UC Berkeley will be formally celebrating Jewish American Heritage Month and we are pleased to recognize the estimated 2,500 Jewish students who study on campus, along with Jewish staff, faculty and alumni.

Learning about the Jewish American community

Jewish people make up only 0.2% of the global population, numbering about 15 million individuals worldwide. Roughly seven million Jews live in the United States, including well over one million in California. Jews first arrived in the United States as early as the mid-1600s and have continued to move to America from many places across the globe, notably Europe and the Middle East.

These waves of immigration have created a dynamic and multi-ethnic American Jewish population, showcasing the diversity of Jews in the world. Many immigrant Jews have seen the United States as a safe haven and a country in which they could be accepted as full citizens without compromising their religious beliefs.

Today, Jews in America organize religiously in a number of diverse denominations such as Orthodox, Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist. Others are not religiously observant but consider themselves part of a common culture or people.

In America and across the world, Jews have long faced discrimination and periodic outbreaks of antisemitic exclusion, hatred, violence, and acts of genocide; sadly, antisemitism has been on the rise again since 2016. Jews’ experiences of discrimination have led many to take important roles in the civil rights struggles of other groups in America: In the early 20th century, for instance, Jewish businessman Julius Rosenwald joined Booker T. Washington to build more than 5000 public schools for African Americans across the South. And during the Civil Rights struggle of the 1960s, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel marched arm-in-arm with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Celebrating Jewish American contributions

UC Berkeley has been home to numerous prominent Jewish scholars and has educated an impressive list of Jewish alumni. Berkeley professors Robert Alter and Chana Kronfeld revolutionized the study of Hebrew Literature and other scholars like Erich GruenDaniel BoyarianAmos Funkenstein, and John Efron have made Berkeley a leading institution for the study of the Talmud, Jewish history, and other fields of Jewish studies.

Jews have left a mark on campus in other ways too. The Magnes Collection of Jewish Art & Life is named for Judah Magnes, who founded the first-ever Jewish museum in the western United States. Zellerbach Hall is named for members of the Zellerbach family, which created San Francisco’s A. Zellerbach & Sons paper company.

Campus resources

UC Berkeley has numerous resources to support the Jewish community. These include Berkeley Hillel Jewish Student CenterChabad Jewish Student Center and a wide range of Jewish student organizations that deal with a particular cultural, social or political issue. The Berkeley Antisemitism Education Initiative puts on many public programs and trainings about the historical and contemporary challenges of antisemitism.

Upcoming events

Campus groups have organized a number of events that recognize Jewish American life and scholarship.  The Magnes Museum is hosting a series of exhibitions, including “Time Capsules. The Magnes: 10 Years at UC Berkeley,” that runs through May 11. The Helen Diller Institute for Jewish Law and Israel Studies has been celebrating its 10th anniversary with myriad events, including a lecture titled “Reimagining Diversity and Jewish Belonging: A Journey Through Genesis.” The Center for Jewish Studies hosts regular talks and presentations about Jewish topics.

We hope you will join us in not only educating yourselves but celebrating the critical contributions and rich culture of our Jewish American community.