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The UC San Diego Jewish Studies program has played an integral role in the university for nearly half a century. Although interest in Jewish Studies at UC San Diego goes back to the late 1960s, concrete steps were first taken in 1970-71 to initiate a program when John Muir College began to offer a three-quarter sequence on Judaic Cultural Traditions. In 1971-71, a number of students began to press for instruction in Hebrew. In the spring of 1972, two UC San Diego students took the initiative to circulate a letter addressed to the Chancellor to ask the administration for inclusion of courses and curricula in Jewish Studies. This letter was signed by approximately 10% of the undergraduate student body. The Chancellor replied positively, and asked Provost John Stewart to assume responsibility for a suitable development of Judaic Studies at UC San Diego.  In 1974, the Department of Literature began hosting visiting professors in the area of Judaic Studies; the first permanent position was filled in 1976 by Richard Friedman, who came to UC San Diego from the Harvard Divinity School as an Assistant Professor. By the late 1970s, Hebrew was one of the highest-enrolled foreign languages taught at UC San Diego.

In 1981, the Board of Regents accepted a Judaic Studies community-funded endowment. By 1985, 1000 students were enrolled in courses in Modern Middle East, American Jewish History, the Holocaust, Bible, and Hebrew. A doctoral program in Judaic Studies began in the 1989-1990 academic year – the first of its kind in San Diego, and the first Ph.D in Ancient History was granted to Risa Levitt Kohn in 1997. Professor Kohn would go on to direct the Jewish Studies program at SDSU. In 1993, UCSD inaugurated its archaeological research and study program in Israel, directed by Thomas Levy.

The Jewish Studies program as a whole has flourished as new faculty positions have been added. Today the program continues to be a major international center which produces teachers and scholars, publishes important works, and brings scholars and lecturers from around the world to San Diego. The Holocaust Living History Workshop was established in 2007 under the leadership of Prof. Deborah Hertz. As UC San Diego’s student interest has shifted, the program has shifted to meet student interest and needs. In 2015, Judaic Studies was renamed Jewish Studies, and in 2018-19, the two major community Jewish Studies support groups, the Friends of Judaic Studies and the Board of Visitors, merged into the Jewish Studies Community Council.