By Andrew Cohen
UC Berkeley has announced a $10 million endowment gift from the Helen Diller Foundation to the law school’s Institute for Jewish Law and Israel Studies. In recognition of this generosity, the institute is now renamed the Helen Diller Institute for Jewish Law and Israel Studies.
The gift launches the 10th anniversary celebration for the institute, an academic hub with campuswide scope housed at Berkeley Law, which can now expand the many ways it engages students, faculty, and the broader community.
“It’s a pleasure to see the Israel and Jewish Studies academic landscape flourish here, and become a model for programs around the country,” says UC Berkeley Chancellor Carol Christ. “This consequential gift continues a history of pivotal philanthropy by the Diller family, and will help make it possible for us to educate leaders and scholars for generations to come.”
Hellen Diller and her husband Sanford Diller, who died in 2015 and 2018 respectively, met as UC Berkeley undergraduates. In 2002, the family made endowment gifts totaling $5 million to the university’s Center for Jewish Studies, and in 2019 the Helen Diller Foundation made a $5 million gift to establish its first endowed faculty chair in Israel Studies.
Established in 2011, the institute supports more than 20 undergraduate fellows each semester and brings five to six top visiting educators to campus each year. It has sponsored 85 courses across a dozen departments, tackling subjects from Israeli constitutional law and transboundary water in the Middle East to minority rights in Israel and Jewish mysticism.
Offering varied academic approaches to Israel studies through undergraduate and graduate coursework, conferences, lectures, panels, and roundtables, the institute’s programming draws a broad audience of about 2,000 students, faculty, and community members annually.
Berkeley Law Dean Erwin Chemerinsky says he is grateful to the Helen Diller Foundation’s generosity, noting that it “will elevate the work of this prestigious and important institute, supporting student, faculty, and community engagement here at the law school and across campus.”
Filling a void
“The institute allows students to look at Judaism and Israel beyond just the cultural perspective but through a rigorous academic lens,” says Nir Maoz, a former undergraduate fellow (’15) and Berkeley Law graduate (’19) who now serves on the advisory board. “This scholarly pursuit also helps inform one’s own career path and other academic pursuits, whether it be in law, history, economics, or any other field.”
The gift will help the institute keep growing its number and diversity of students, faculty, learning opportunities, and experiential programs. Faculty Director and Berkeley Law Professor Kenneth Bamberger says it “allows us to institutionalize our focus on supporting and mentoring students, and expanding programs and initiatives that deepen scholarly inquiry and discourse across the UC Berkeley campus for the long-term.”
The 10th anniversary celebration will feature events throughout the year. They include leading Israeli author Etgar Keret discussing his most recent writing and film projects and his approach to storytelling (Feb. 11), a two-part symposium (Feb. 4 and March 4) titled “Cyber-Hate: Defining and Combating Anti-Semitsm and Hate Online,” a Robbins Collection Lecture on “Jewish Law for the Digital Age” (March 10), and an event honoring the institute’s naming with former Israeli Supreme Court Chief Justice Dorit Beinisch, Christ, and Chemerinsky.
“The institute’s events are intellectually stimulating and address important and timely topics related to Israel and Judaism,” says Berkeley Law student Emile Katz ’21. “For me, the chance to interact with other people who care deeply about Judaism, as well as Israel, has been invaluable to my law school experience. It has made me feel like I belong at Berkeley and that I have a community.”
Maoz says one of his most rewarding experiences as an undergraduate fellow was taking a class on cross-border resources with visiting professor Itay Fischhendler. It led to a rigorous research project on economic energy sanctions that took Maoz to Hebrew University in Israel and culminated in a peer-reviewed publication.
He says, “Being part of the institute allowed me to explore the complexity of the Jewish identity and learn about Israel and its unique place in the world, as well as examine the intersection of those two things with my other passion: law.”
An expanding roster
In addition to its robust slate of courses, the institute provides opportunities for collaboration with other law schools, Jewish Law centers, and Israeli legal institutions.
Its Undergraduate Fellows Program fosters a growing cohort of diverse student leaders who create initiatives and courses for their peers while gaining professional development and mentorship. Working with professors, lecturers, and researchers in various contexts, they confront topical issues in Jewish and Israel Studies from an academic perspective.
The institute also offers a social justice-focused Global Internship Program that connects students with internships in Israel at nonprofits, social enterprises, and grassroots organizations in education, community development, women’s rights, immigration, and technology innovation. Those students take an academic course on Israel’s minorities, optional language courses in Hebrew or Arabic, and have weekly travel opportunities focused on social change and activism.
“The programs and courses have enriched my understanding of Israel from both a legal and cultural perspective,” says Berkeley Law student Jacob Lahana ’21, who took a comparative law class from visiting Israeli professor Amnon Reichman and learned about the nation’s judicial system at a program with Israeli Supreme Court Justice Daphne Barak-Erez. “The institute is an important part of the law school and serves as a bridge across the campus community.”
Advisory board member and Berkeley Law graduate Olivia Wittels ’19 took Jewish Law with Bamberger, attended lectures on legal and non-legal topics, and developed close relationships with institute team members. As a 3L, she led a Berkeley Law spring break trip to Israel for graduate students and worked with the institute on pre-trip programming that included a Q&A with an Israeli Supreme Court justice.
“The institute was an invaluable part of my Berkeley Law experience,” she says. “I wanted to join the advisory board because I deeply believe in its mission, its work, and the impact it has on Berkeley’s campus, including to combat anti-Semitism. Going forward, I hope that the institute continues to grow and solidify its well-deserved position as a leading space in Israel and Jewish studies, research, programming, and mentorship, as well as Israeli-American collaboration.”
Wittels notes that the institute directly tackles issues by offering diverse programming and viewpoints that probe Israel’s complexities, challenges, and criticisms.
“From political discussions to groundbreaking scientific research to innovative art, the institute provides a forum to engage with complicated subjects while promoting academic inquiry, discourse, and open-mindedness with respect to Israel and Jewish studies,” she says.
For Katz, the institute is “a special organization that other law schools don’t have, and therefore sets Berkeley Law apart.” He adds, “It demonstrates that the school values the contribution of Jewish thought and a commitment to diverse views on Israel.”