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Sac State, community members celebrate opening of new space dedicated to supporting Jewish students

When Rabbi Ben Herman hung the mezuzah – a sign of protection – on the doorpost of the Jewish Life and Resource Center at Sacramento State, he was joined by audience members who recited the Hebrew blessing by heart.

Sacramento city leaders and members of the Jewish community joined faculty and students on May 8 to celebrate the official opening of the center, a collaboration between the University and Hillel at Davis and Sacramento.

The Jewish Life and Resource Center, Sac State’s newest “equity and affinity center,” is the first space on campus dedicated to supporting Jewish students.

“This may seem like just a building among many buildings, but it’s so much more than that,” Mayor Darrell Steinberg said. “It’s about enabling young Jewish students to identify as Jewish safely and with pride.

“What Luke Wood and this university are demonstrating is something for the rest of the state and the rest of the country to uphold. The idea that there can be real safe spaces for the peaceful exercise of free expression and the First Amendment, and at the same time not let those lines be crossed that frighten, that vilify, too many young people, especially Jewish students.”

Sac State is home to several equity and affinity centers that provide safe spaces for students from historically marginalized backgrounds and identities. They offer resources, programming and one-on-one support so students can learn about themselves, build community and strengthen their connection to the University.

President Luke Wood called the opening of the Jewish Life and Resource Center, located in Suite 1010 of Modoc Hall, a “defining moment in Sac State’s history.”

“And the fact that we’re able to do it in partnership with Hillel makes it even more special,” Wood said. “Across the country right now you’re seeing people move away from open dialogue, move away from honest conversations. We wanted to do something that’s different.

“Where other campus communities may vilify, we want to unify. Where other campus communities may want to sow seeds of discord, we want to sow seeds of truth and understanding.”

President Luke Wood speaking to a crowd gathered in the Jewish Life and Resource Center.
President Luke Wood speaks to attendees at the grand opening of Sac State's new Jewish Life and Resource Center. He called the opening of the center a "defining moment in Sac State's history." (Sacramento State/Andrea Price)

Hillel, an international Jewish campus organization, established the Davis and Sacramento center in 1965 across the street from UC Davis to serve as a home away from home for Jewish students. But the center’s location meant most of its focus had been on UC Davis students.

Hillel staff experimented with ways to draw Sac State students to its events in Davis, such as reimbursing them for gas or rideshare services.

“But not a lot of people wanted to make the drive,” Hillel Springboard Fellow Dasha Pozdnikov said. “That’s when we really started to look into ways we could establish ourselves at Sac State.”

Hillel set up tables at Sac State events, where they met Jewish students like Ilai Sirak. The Computer Science major is active with community-service groups on campus but said he was missing the connection to other Jews.

“Being Jewish is a big part of our identity,” Sirak said. “It’s important to be connected to a community and not feel alone.”

Pozdnikov reached out to Wood as well as Mark Wheeler, the senior advisor to the president who had been working with Sac State Jewish students to offer more kosher food options on campus, start a training for faculty to better understand antisemitism, and establish a task force to address problems or concerns in the Jewish community.

“Where other campus communities may vilify, we want to unify. Where other campus communities may want to sow seeds of discord, we want to sow seeds of truth and understanding.” -- Sacramento State President Luke Wood

Roughly 2% to 3% of Sacramento State’s 30,193 students identify as Jewish, according to Pozdnikov, and many of them told University officials they wanted a place on campus to share their cultural heritage.

“When it comes to Judaism, a lot of people identify on various levels in terms of religion,” Pozdnikov said. “A lot of students we come in contact with are proudly, ethnically Jewish, but don’t identify with the religious aspect of Judaism.

“It’s another reason it’s so important to have a cultural center.”

Sacramento City Councilmember Lisa Kaplan praised the University for partnering with Hillel to make the center a reality.

“What we need to talk about nowadays is, how do we come together and have that conversation of acceptance when we disagree, and even more so at a time when our Jewish students do not feel safe,” Kaplan said.

Beginning this summer, Pozdnikov hopes the center will host monthly events or programs.. Eventually, she wants to have Shabbat dinner every Friday.

“It’s so important to expose yourself to diverse environments, but it’s also important to have a space where you can go and be around people who you don’t have to explain your heritage or background to,” she said. “It makes a world of difference.

“Everyone wants to feel safe … and establishing a level of comfort just improves students’ overall performance in academics and mood in general.”

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About Jennifer K. Morita

Jennifer K. Morita joined Sacramento State in 2022. A former newspaper reporter for the Sacramento Bee, she spent several years juggling freelance writing with being a mom. When she isn’t chauffeuring her two daughters, she enjoys reading mysteries, experimenting with recipes, and Zumba.

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