I am a firm exponent and adherent of any cause which extends the hand of salvation to the living in time of distress; which, instead of waiting until a man is down, prevents him from sinking.— Melvin M. Swig                             

In 1977, Melvin M. Swig and several friends saw the need to establish a Jewish Studies program in the San Francisco Bay Area. The University of San Francisco, a premiere Jesuit Catholic institution of higher learning, was the natural home. Not only was this the first endowed chair or Jewish Studies program at any college or university in the Bay Area, but Swig and USF had actually broken ground on a global scale: it was the first Jewish Studies chair or program at a Catholic university anywhere in the world.

The founding program director, and the first individual to hold the chair, was Rabbi David Davis, renowned at the time for his interfaith work. His most popular course at the time was “Jesus the Jew.” In 1997, the History Department’s Andrew Heinze took over the program. Under Davis and Heinze, notable speakers brought to campus included Saul Bellow, Erik Erikson, Chaim Potok, and Elie Wiesel. Along with Hebrew language professor, Esti Skloot, Heinze also established the summer intensive Hebrew language program then called “Ulpan.”

In 2007, Aaron Hahn Tapper became the third person to direct the program, and, like Davis, to hold the endowed professorship. In 2008, Hahn Tapper relaunched the program with a new name, the Swig Program in Jewish Studies and Social Justice. (Formerly it was called the Swig Judaic Studies Program.) Once again, USF and the program broke historical ground, this time in becoming the first academic program worldwide to formally link Jewish Studies with Social Justice.

In 2018, Oren Kroll-Zeldin was added to the team as a professor of Jewish Studies and the new Assistant Director of the Swig Program in Jewish Studies and Social Justice (JSSJ), as was Rabbi Lee Bycel, who has served as the Sinton Visiting Professor of Holocaust, Genocide, and Refugee Studies since that time. In 2019, Rabbi Camille Shira Angel joined the Swig JSSJ Program as the school’s first Rabbi-in-Residence in USF’s then-165 year history.

Including a minor in this leading-edge field, “In the Classroom” the program offers a wide range of significant Jewish Studies courses not found in other educational settings, as well as an annual intensive Hebrew language summer program called Hebrew San Francisco—Ulpan; 2022 was our 25th consecutive summer. In summer 2019, they also began offering a complementary intensive Arabic language program, “Arabic San Francisco.” Over the past 40 years, literally tens of thousands of students have taken JSSJ courses; hundreds are enrolled each year. In 2017–18 and 2018-19, they averaged 1,000 students per year in their JSSJ classes.

“Beyond the Classroom,” the program offers extraordinary events that are free and open to the public, which thousands have attended, including an:

    • Annual Human Rights Lecture
    • Annual Social Justice Lecture
    • Annual Speaker Series on Diversity of Jewish Identities
    • Annual Social Justice Passover Seder
    • “Open Doors” Sukkot program
    • Events and classes focused on Holocaust and Genocide
    • Events and classes focused on Israel/Palestine

In Fall 2022 they launched a new project, Mapping Jewish San Francisco. This digital humanities educational resource takes a collaborative approach to examining the complex history and unique religious, cultural, and political identity of Jewish communities in the San Francisco Bay Area.

In Fall 2023 they are establishing a new graduate-level Certificate program in Education, Jewish Studies, and Social Justice in partnership with USF’s School of Education.