A former Catholic seminary and retreat center may not be the first place people expect to find a large number of Jews teaching and studying, but Bastyr University is an exceptional place in a number of ways.
Since 1996, the school has been on its current campus on the shore of Lake Washington, next to St. Edwards State Park in suburban Kenmore. The buildings still bear the art and decorations from its previous incarnation, but the university itself is anything but a parochial institution. One thing Bastyr takes great pride in is its commitment to diversity in both its students and staff. Several members of Bastyr’s leadership, from the dean of students and the director of finance to the department chairs in basic sciences and nutrition are Jewish, as are about one out of 10 of the students and approximately 20 percent of the faculty.
Dr. Sheryl Berman, who leads the school’s department of basic sciences, has been teaching at the college for nine years. “It’s a wonderful institution, the faculty is very close-knit and there is a lot of diversity here,” she said. “The wonderful thing about Bastyr is that we’re not very narrow at all.”
Holding advanced degrees in immunology and microbiology and a bachelor’s degree in laboratory medicine, she said she got into the field of natural medicine “accidentally.”
“I was interested in nutrition and chiropractic care and massage, but I knew very little about anything holistic,” she said. “Most of my learning about complimentary medicine (holistic medicine, integrative medicine) has been here. I’ve incorporated it totally into my life since then.” While she emphasizes her commitment to a scientific approach to questions of faith, Dr. Berman has found that there is ample evidence to suggest that religion can play an important role in a person’s health.
“The neat thing is there’s very strong science to show that the presence of a strong spirituality or even a religion in people does enhance their immune response,” she said. “All of our students have got to give basic science research reports in my class, and a number of them will always look at the effect of spirituality and religion and prayer, and even formal attendance at church or synagogue, on your immune system and your ability to fight disease and maintain your health.” This does not mean that a person cannot be healthy and have a well-functioning immune system without believing or attending services, she points out, but “if spirituality is a strong part of a person’s life, that’s going to play an important part in their health and disease, as well.”
Berman said that while she is a member of a temple “and I identify with the culture and with the connection to other Jews and the holidays,” she tries to maintain a separation to keep a sense of scientific objectivity in her work as a scientist and teacher. Like Berman, Nutrition Department Chairman Mark Kester said he was attracted to Bastyr by its emphasis on a scientific approach to natural medicine. His interest in nutrition, he said, stems from his “passion for food, in general, and a great interest in health and food.”
“I do think that food is very central in Judaism. Almost all Jewish holidays have a strong food component. In a funny way even Yom Kippur is the absence of food,” said Kester. “Food is a very important part of Jewish ritual and history.” He said he also recognizes some possible connections between the way naturopathic medicine approaches food and nutrition and the kosher dietary laws.
“There is a stream of Jewish thought that is vegetarian-oriented, or not causing animal suffering,” he said. “There’s even an Orthodox stream of that.
“There’s been work being done where some people claim that the Jewish dietary laws benefited health, for example avoiding animals that ate carrion because they’d be more likely to be diseased. Of course, from a Hallachic point of view, you’d say we should do it because we’re supposed to do it, so it’s a matter of perspective,” he added.
Sheldon Haber, the university’s vice-president for finance and administration, has been with the school for about as long, having taken up his position in 1993. During the time he has been there, the school has grown approximately 700 percent from a $3 million to a $21 million operation. After spending several years as the finance director of the Seattle Opera, he said he was drawn to Bastyr by “the whole alignment of natural medicine and a way of being and doing things in a way that treats people holistically,” he said, “trying to understand why [illness or disease] happened, where it’s come from and how we can change our lives to deal with it.” Haber said he feels there is a strong connection to how the school approaches the subject of health and his own understanding of faith as a Jew.
“I think that flows into our lives as Jews and how we think about ourselves religiously and how we pray and how we question and contemplate and process,” he said. “In terms of all faith, there’s both the spiritual side and also the intellectual curiosity of what we do and how we are, and how we live. I think it’s a very appropriate medicine. No matter what your faith may be, it’s a very progressive medicine, intellectually. It really seems like Bastyr is a prominent player in making our health care system make those positive changes.”
Sandy Voit has been the dean of students at Bastyr for 19 years, during which time the school has grown from about 130 students to over 1,000. Before moving to Seattle, he spent his life in New York, where he worked in student services at two campuses of the State University of New York, and at Vassar College.
“When I first got to Bastyr, it was a pretty small school,” he said. “The advantage of being at a small school is that everybody knows you. The disadvantage of being at a small school is everybody knows you. If you’re not in class, everybody knows that you’re not in class.”
Growing up in eastern Long Island, Voit said he remembers traveling to Bay Shore to attend services at the nearest year-round Reform temple. “There’s a summer congregation in the Hamptons, but during the regular year there’s nothing,” he said. “I guess you have to go to Europe for the next place east of us.” His family has always been active in temple, he said, and his mother was one of the first women presidents of a congregation in America. When he first took on the job at Bastyr, he brought that involvement to the campus with him.
“I remember the first year I was here I put out a community invitation to the student body, saying ‘If you don’t have a place to go for Passover, come over to my house.’ Twenty-nine people showed up. They weren’t all Jewish, of course,” Voit recalled. “It was a blast. People brought in their own traditions and experiences, and there was a lot of explaining of things to the people who were not Jewish.”
As dean of students, he has made certain that observant Jews are not at a disadvantage because of scheduling conflicts. “Because I run orientation, we run the orientation around the Jewish holidays. This year, we’re actually doing orientation in two bits so we can avoid Rosh Hashanah, and then Yom Kippur falls during the first week of classes,” he said. “We have a policy on the Jewish holidays that, while the classes are not canceled, we don’t give exams and they are considered excused absences.”
Last month, Sandy Voit announced he would be stepping down from his post at Bastyr to become the executive director at Temple Beth Am.