Gonzaga University Gets Its First Torah Scroll and Jewish Space

Eastern Washington is a region that, over the past half century, has been far more known for its hate groups than for its Jewish community.

Spokane and the surrounding area were infamously a hotbed of racism from the 1970s to the 1990s, a period that included multiple acts of vandalism and neo-Nazi intimidation at the local conservative synagogue, Congregation Beth Shalom. On the outskirts of the community that encompasses Spokane and the resort town of Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, is the 20-acre Aryan Nations resort in Hayden Lake, Idaho. Until it was closed in 2000 following a lawsuit led by the Southern Poverty Law Center, the complex was a hub for hate groups around the world, including the Ku Klux Klan.

And yet it is in this area that Gonzaga University, a private Jesuit school in Spokane, recently celebrated the arrival of its first Torah scroll and the dedication of an area that the university has deemed its “Jewish Sacred Space.”

“The attitude towards the Jewish people is very open and friendly. It’s amazing, ”said Carla Peperzak, a 98-year-old Holocaust survivor from Amsterdam and social justice activist who now lives in Spokane.

Rabbi Elizabeth Goldstein, a religious studies professor at Gonzaga, was instrumental in creating a Jewish presence on campus for its approximately 40 to 60 enrolled students who identify as Jewish.

“There was no Hillel, there was no real infrastructure for me to start doing that job,” he said. “But over time, I found the Jewish children, and they found me.”

Goldstein created the Jewish Bulldogs Club, named after Gonzaga’s mascot, and implemented courses in Jewish studies, including modern Hebrew and women in the Jewish tradition. He also teaches courses on the Hebrew Bible.

“I think it is important to study Torah,” Peperzak said. “And a Catholic university where students can study Torah, that’s very special.”

But without a central space, Jewish students still struggled to meet. Hannah Zeva Presken, a Gonzaga senior and current president of the Jewish Bulldogs, felt the absence of a Jewish community. So he struggled to build one.

“Students spend all day in class and usually don’t want to come to Shabbat services at 7:30 on Friday nights,” Presken said. “I redesigned the Jewish Bulldogs, so it’s more of a cultural and social community. The whole dynamic has changed. “

The rise in Jewish studies and the budding community was attractive, but students still didn’t have a way to get together for services or holidays, which Goldstein thought was an integral part of a full Jewish life on campus. She set her sights on acquiring a Torah for school.

“I put the Torah in the center [of this effort], then I thought, ‘Where are we going to put this Torah?’ That’s where the idea of ​​the Jewish Sacred Space came from, ”said Goldstein, who is also the Jewish chaplain at Gonzaga’s Office of Mission and Ministry, as well as a substitute congregational rabbi at Beth Shalom and the Emanu-El Congregation, a Reformed temple in Spokane.

The Foley Center Library at Gonzaga University in Spokane, WA. (credit: VIA WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)

Goldstein came across an empty nondenominational chapel on the third floor of College Hall, one of Gonzaga’s oldest buildings, built in 1898. The space was across the hall from a Muslim prayer space and behind the Catholic chapel. . The corridor is now casually known as the Interfaith Hall.

The creation of the Sacred Space was a community effort. Goldstein, Presken, other Jewish professors, and a set designer from the university’s Center for the Performing Arts designed the ark that would house the Torah. The center set builder made the ark, a rectangular piece of wood with the Hebrew letters “Eitz Hayyim” (Tree of Life) on the doors. The room is long and narrow with a bookcase that houses a multi-volume Talmud and other books. The windows overlook the Gonzaga campus, green with manicured trees and shrubs.

Volunteers, such as students Presken and Isaiah Krigel, helped raise about $ 15,000 in donations for the Torah scroll, according to a story from Gonzaga. A dedication ceremony was held on October 1 after the arrival of the Torah from Sofer-on-Site, an organization that rehabilitates damaged Torahs and employs scribes to create new ones.

Some attendees took turns cradling the scroll and wearing it under a tallit or prayer shawl. Several people spoke about the meaning of the Torah and Sacred Space, including Rabbi Goldstein, Peperzak, Beth Shalom, Rabbi Tamar Malino, and University President Thayne McCulloh.

“In my long life I have never had the privilege of being part of such an important event. The fact that a Catholic university is the home of a Torah is indeed a great event, my heart is happy, ”Peperzak said at the event. “It also reminds me of the time, so many years ago, when Jews in concentration camps literally risked their lives reading and studying in the deepest secret. Why? He linked them to their parents, spouses, children, and relatives. And it also gave them hope, and hope was all they had. “

Krigel, who is a young man and a member of the Jewish Bulldogs, believes that the new space and the scroll will inspire other Jews to sign up.

“With this Torah, many more Jews will come to Gonzaga because it is a very open and accepting school,” he said.

Shabbat services are held in the Sacred Space, as well as a weekly Jewish Song and Meditation. During a recent fall family weekend service, Presken’s mother read the new scroll, which was an emotional moment for her family.

“It was his first time. When she was in bat mitzvah, she wasn’t allowed to read the Torah because she was a woman, ”Presken said. “It was really very special that the first Torah he was able to read from was the first Torah that I helped carry Gonzaga.”

The evolution of acceptance of Spokane and Northern Idaho continues to be a work in progress. Last February, Raymond Bryant, a member of the neo-Nazi group 14First Foundation, spray painted Beth Shalom swastikas and defaced a Holocaust memorial, an echo of the region’s recent history. In 2020, the Southern Poverty Law Center tracked down 22 hate groups across Washington state.

In the wake of the rise in anti-Semitism across the country, Spokane’s Jewish activism has increased. Beth Shalom, Emanu-El, and Chabad of Spokane hosted Holocaust survivor talks at the Spokane Convention Center in 2018. This month, Presken gave a talk during a freshman retreat about her experiences as a Jewish student in Gonzaga. He said it was the first time they had talked about what it’s like to be Jewish in college.

“I used to feel like I was not Jewish when I was here, but that has completely changed,” she said. “It has given me a completely different perspective on what it means to be Jewish. Now when I’m with other Jews, it’s an instant connection. “

Although Goldstein has been with Gonzaga since 2010, this is the first time that he feels that he “fully belongs in body and soul. This Torah, this Jewish space … I have never felt so at home. There is a space for me, and I think many Jewish children feel that way. “


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