Shana Penn ’77

DEGREE: B.A., history

JOB TITLE: Executive director, Taube Philanthropies; Scholar in Residence, Graduate Theological Union Center for Jewish Studies

ACTIVITIES WHILE AT TRINITY: Participated in Trinity Hillel Shabbat dinners and Havurah Shabbatons on New England campuses; weekly women’s radio program on the College radio station; a member of the New England Alternative Radio Network; a volunteer at the West Hartford JCC, tutoring junior high school students in Hebrew; studied Yiddish with a community tutor

(Editor’s Note: Shana Penn answered our questions with the following essay.)

College is a time for young people to explore and sharpen their sense of personal identity. During my four years at Trinity, I experienced a deepening of my sense of self and my capacities in ways I never could have anticipated, not so much because Trinity offered everything I sought or thought I needed–which it did not–but because it supported me in attaining them and achieving my objectives.

When I applied to university, in 1972-73, academic institutions did not endeavor, as they do today, to promote their attractiveness to Jewish students by highlighting campus offerings such as Jewish studies courses, a Hillel society, kosher dining, or the accessibility to a local Jewish community. Degree programs in Jewish studies did not yet exist. The student-run Trinity Hillel had a marginal presence tucked away in a modest abode on nearby Crescent Street. Fortunately, I was not particularly concerned with either nurturing or forsaking my Jewish identity at a school named Trinity. Although I had a Jewish background and Jewish themes influenced my sense of self and the world around me, questions of gender and power stood at the forefront of my consciousness.

In fact, I was more attuned to the school’s gender ratios than to its religious and ethnic demographics. When I was admitted in 1973, Trinity still had a quota on female students, and the female-to-male ratio was 1:3. Having graduated from an all-female high school, I was not accustomed to being a gender minority. I was of course curious about attending a school that was gradually shifting, physically and culturally, from its all-male norms to a coed population with inevitable demands for gender-sensitive norms. But as a Jewish student in my high school’s ethnically diverse population, I had been accustomed to being a minority. That hadn’t influenced my experience, so I didn’t think my Jewish identity would matter much to my college mates or to me, even at a school named Trinity. Little did I know!

I came to Trinity as a product of American Jewish religious pedagogy, whose curricula primarily focused on Biblical history, the Holocaust, Zionism, and the founding of the State of Israel. At Trinity two professors opened up a whole new Jewish world. Dr. Samuel Kassow in the History Department introduced me and fellow students to European Jewish history and the major movements in religious learning and secular culture that had blossomed in Europe, especially Eastern Europe, over many centuries. We used to listen avidly to Sam’s stories of his travels behind the Iron Curtain to Poland to conduct research at Jewish history archives. When teaching the broad forces of history, he would add personal stories of his parents’ survival in the Holocaust and his own experience of having been born in a post-World War II displaced persons camp.

Dr. Michael Lerner, a philosopher, was a visiting professor during my first year. A New Left radical and today a rabbi and the founding editor of Tikkun magazine, he taught Marxist philosophy and the social politics of the American Left in the 20th century. He introduced us to the exciting efforts by Jewish activists, who had grown discouraged by the anti-Semitism they had experienced in New Left groups, to create alternative modes of Jewish religious and cultural practices that were responsive to contemporary values such as feminism. He encouraged us to participate in groups called Havurot (fellowships), many of which gathered for Sabbath retreats on campuses in New England and New York, just a stone’s throw from Trinity.

It was an exciting time to get involved in such groundbreaking events, which were ushering in new, relevant forms of Jewish identity and community. They complemented my interest in feminist theory, notions such as “the personal is political,” and the study of women’s history. Even though Trinity did not offer degree programs or many courses in Jewish and women’s studies (which did not formally exist on most U.S. campuses), I was able to pursue these subjects through independent study and summer study programs, with occasional and much-appreciated financial support from Trinity. I quickly mastered the skills to research and write my senior history thesis, on the political autobiography of Emma Goldman, the famous Jewish feminist anarchist, born in Russia, who influenced early 20th-century American labor and social movements.

Sam and Michael remain my colleagues, and Jewish and gender issues continue to define my professional work, both as an independent scholar based at the Graduate Theological Union’s Center for Jewish Studies and as executive director of a family philanthropy whose main funding priorities are Jewish academic and cultural life in the San Francisco Bay Area, including support of Hillels. Our foundation also works in Poland, where the founder-chairman was born.

Last April I met Sam and his wife, Lisa Kassow, who directs Trinity’s Zachs Hillel House, in Warsaw to celebrate the opening of the Museum of the History of Polish Jews, in which we have been involved for much of the last decade. Michael Lerner lives in Berkeley, as do I, and I’ve had occasion to publish in his magazine and keep abreast of his national activities. Both scholars were helpful to me when I began researching women’s experiences in Poland’s Solidarity revolution for a book that became important in the field.

The Trinity connections continue. As we say in Yiddish, Oon azoy vayter: And so on and so forth!