Resounding Voices in the West
The American Jewish community has played a vital role in shaping the politics, culture, commerce and multiethnic character of Southern California and the American West. Beginning in the mid-19th century, when entrepreneurs like Levi Strauss and Adolph Sutro first ventured out West, American Jews became a major force in the establishment and development of the budding Western territories. Since 1970, the number of Jews in the West has more than tripled. This dramatic demographic shift has made California–specifically, Los Angeles–home to the second largest Jewish population in the United States. The American Jewish population is today more fluid than at any other time in our nation’s history. As a result, we have exciting new opportunities to explore the implication of these dynamic changes not only for Jews, but also for the region as a whole and society in general.
Paralleling this shifting pattern of migration, Jewish voices in the West are today among the most prominent anywhere in the United States. Largely migrating from Eastern Europe, the Middle East and the East Coast of the United States, Jews have invigorated the West. With the emergence of Los Angeles as a world capital in entertainment and communications, the Jewish perspective and experience in the region are being amplified further. From artists and activists to scholars and professionals, Jews are helping to shape things to come in the West and across the United States.
Jewish Life in Modern America
In recognition of these important demographic and societal changes, the University of Southern California has established the first-ever scholarly institute dedicated to studying contemporary issues of Jewish life in the Western United States. Since 1998, the USC Casden Institute for the Study of the Jewish Role in American Life has been bringing new insight to bear upon the important role played by Jewish people in American Culture, particularly in the West.
The extraordinary contributions Jews are making in transforming the West Coast has warranted the establishment of a program that allows the fullest, strongest expression of the modern Jewish experience to shine through.
What can we learn from the historical and contemporary impact of Jews on American life? How have Jews interacted with other ethnic and religious groups? How has Jewish identity changed? What has the cultural expression of those changes been? Such inquiries can lead to a new appreciation for what it means to be Jewish, to be American, and to interact with people of other cultures.
The Casden Institute’s scholarly orientation and contemporary focus, combined with its location on the West Coast, sets it apart from–and makes it an important complement to–the many excellent Jewish Studies programs across the nation that center on Judaism from an historical or religious perspective.
The Casden Institute explores contemporary issues related to the interface between the Jewish community and the broader, multifaceted cultures that form the nation–issues of relationship as much as of Jewishness itself. It is also enhancing the educational experience for students, exposing them to the problems–and promise–of life in Los Angeles’ ethnically, socially, culturally and economically diverse community.
Partners in Scholarship
The USC Casden Institute for the Study of the Jewish Role in American Life is committed to working in concert with the many established community organizations in Los Angeles whose common purpose is to support and advance various aspects of Jewish culture and history. Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR), an important center for Jewish scholarship closely affiliated with USC, and its faculty was an early collaborator with the Casden Institute and continues to play an important role in defining and carrying out its mission.
As an interdisciplinary center working closely with many of USC’s schools and departments, and also working closely with the USC Hillel Jewish Center to reach a student audience, the institute creates a new and unusual operating relationship between academic departments and Hillel. In much the same way that Judaism is often associated with a strong intellectual tradition, the institute tries to integrate academic life with Jewish student life at USC.
In addition to USC’s partnership with HUC and the Casden Institute’s work with Hillel, the university has nurtured several other close relationships that complement the resources on campus. The Skirball Cultural Center and Museum in Los Angeles, the Autry Museum of Western Heritage and leaders from many other organizations, including the Jewish Federation Council of Greater Los Angeles, the American Jewish Committee, the National Council of Jewish Women and the Anti-Defamation League, participate in various ways with the Casden Institute. These and other key community groups are instrumental in shaping the direction of research conducted through the Casden Institute. The USC Casden Institute for the Study of the Jewish Role in American Life also hosts many events–including joint exhibitions, conferences and community outreach programs–in collaboration with these institutions.