The College of Idaho is a highly unlikely future center of Jewish learning, but the small liberal arts school founded in 1891 by William Judson Boone, a descendant of American explorer Daniel Boone, is now on the verge of another meeting with history — Jewish history.
The college, located near Boise in the southwestern part of the state, has been awarded a $500,000 matching grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, and once the college meets its $1.5 million fundraising goal, it will establish one of just two Judaic Studies chairs in the vast Intermountain West Region of the United States.
The money will allow the college to expand its Howard Berger Lecture Series, created in May 2010 and named after Prof. Dr. Howard Berger, an American Intellectual History professor by training. Berger is the only full-time Jewish faculty at The College of Idaho; he has become the school’s de facto Hillel as well.
“I never thought this would be my fate when I was finishing up at the University of Washington,” said Berger, who earned a doctorate in History at the UW in 1973. He spoke with the JTNews from his campus office in Caldwell, Idaho. He visited and spoke at Temple Beth Am in Seattle earlier this month.
In 1982, while filling in at the college for a colleague on sabbatical, he said he knew he wanted to stay.
“I fell in love with the college by about Thanksgiving, and in January [my colleague] called and said he would not be coming back,” Berger said. “My one year became 28.”
Berger has inadvertently and singlehandedly become the face of Judaism on the C of I campus.
“Suddenly it dawned on me,” he said. “I represent something bigger than I ever thought I would. I’m the only Jew that most of these students will ever have encountered in their whole life. I am the Jewish people to this part of the country.”
In a state linked with its past ties to white supremacy groups like the Aryan Nations, the C of I are now able to boast such internationally known Jewish speakers as Israel’s consul general for the Pacific Northwest, Akiva Tor, and renowned biblical archeologist Rabbi Dr. Richard Freund. Both scholars spoke on campus and in Sun Valley, a nearby resort community where a Jewish population grows seasonally.
“I think the idea of making this a public intellectual position is what made the case to the NEH,” said Dr. Marvin Henberg, C of I’s president. “To me, that’s taking what Howard has done for an internal audience and taking the next step to the whole state.”
Along with the required Western Civilization courses, Berger also teaches a course titled “National Socialism and the Final Solution,” where he draws a head count of over 120 students. The students just call it “The Nazi course.”
His annual spring Jewish History section draws a maximum registration of 50 students.
Berger has also arranged Purim parties with the local Chabad House in Boise, has taken three trips to Israel with groups of 40 students, and hosted a Hanukkah party in 2010 with 184 students in attendance. Berger had to cut off registration for the event.
He is so popular on campus and has generated such a great interest in Jewish culture and history that the alumni approached him three years ago, seeking to begin raising money for a chair in his name to promote Jewish Studies there.
Michael Vandervelden, vice president for college relations, has been meeting with large foundations and other potential donors in New York and Washington, D.C., hoping that the “big one” will step up and give that million-dollar gift. The chair could be named after them.
Speaking to the JTNews in between meetings in New York, Vandervelden said he met with Hannah Rosenthal, the Obama administration’s special envoy against the spread of anti-Semitism.
“She was so thrilled and she had a lot of ideas for me,” said Vandervelden.
Rosenthal offered to lecture on the campus as part of the Berger lecture series.
When Vandervelden visited the Israeli embassy in Washington, D.C., they were “over-the-top delirious,” he said.
“We’ve also received money from the Jewish community locally from the Boise area,” explained Vandervelden.
The C of I received a major gift from one of its Boise trustees, Skip Oppenheimer, the chairman and CEO of Oppenheimer Companies, Inc., and president and CEO of Oppenheimer Development Corporation.
Mark Dawson, of Rainier Investment Management, Inc., an investment firm headquartered in Seattle, along with his two brothers, David and Peter, gifted the college $25,000, according to Vandervelden. They are not Jewish, he said, but they believe in the importance of establishing the chair.
The school has to raise $1.5 million within four years. Thus far, it has reached approximately $800,000. Depending on the final fundraising tally, the school could then hire one or two professors to teach Jewish history, Jewish texts, and Jewish philosophy and literature.
Regardless of the fundraising, Berger said his students are curious about Judaism. He said he has never heard any hostile or anti-Semitic rhetoric on campus.
“I do think there’s an inherent interest in all things Jewish,” added Berger. “There always was, there always has been and there always will be.”