Congregation Emanu-El was jam-packed with just over 1,600 people on Sunday to celebrate the 40th anniversary of USF’s Swig Program, the first Jewish studies program in the world to exist within a Catholic university. The crowd, consisting of all ages, creeds and cultures gathered in the temple to hear CNN’s chief Washington correspondent Jake Tapper talk on what “speaking truth to power” really means. The evening was not only about celebrating the Swig Program’s anniversary and learning from seasoned journalist Tapper; it was also a showing of brotherly love. The director of the Swig Program in Jewish Studies – and Tapper’s younger brother – Aaron Hahn Tapper was instrumental in planning the celebration, as well as in delivering a heartfelt introduction for his older brother’s speech. Rabbi Lee T. Bycel, with the help of Hahn Tapper, gathered members of USF and the greater Bay Area community to celebrate their 40th anniversary.
“Jake Tapper is the perfect person for this 40th Anniversary program. He is a person of integrity and conscience. He is willing to ask tough questions. He is willing to challenge those in power,” Rabbi Bycel said in an email interview. Bycel, the 40th anniversary chair, spent close to 1,000 hours of planning and coordination to ensure the evening would be a success. These hours were spent on everything from working with outside parties like CNN to building relationships on the Swig Program’s Honorary Committee (which boasts names like Senators Dianne Feinstein and Kamala Harris and former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown, Jr.).
Jake Tapper’s speech touched upon the 2016 presidential election, “fake news,” the importance of challenging power dynamics, and, in his own words, “taking a stand on things there is no debate on: facts, truth, and decency.” He said, “I hope everyone here embraces journalists and journalism who challenge what politicians have said and done, who challenge statements that are not true, who challenge actions that are not decent, and do something regardless of who is in power.” Hahn Tapper agreed, “Social justice demands putting the proverbial spotlight on the margins and the center and asking questions such as, ‘who has power? Who doesn’t have power? Why? How are social identities linked to power?’” Hahn Tapper continued, “The entire notion of speaking truth to power is a fundamental component of social justice. Without speaking truth to power, we cannot change the status quo. We cannot shine light on the darkest places in society.”
The Swig Program in Jewish Studies arrived at USF in 1977. Hahn Tapper, who has been directing the program since 2007, broke ground again in 2008, forming the first Jewish Studies program to incorporate social justice into the curriculum. For example, this last semester, students had the chance to take classes such as “Queering Religion: Theology, Prayer, and Ritual” and “Ethics: Refugees and Justice” under the Swig Program.
Another speaker at the event was Kent Swig, the son of Mel Swig for whom the program is named due to his vision and generosity towards its endeavors. “The Swig Program, from its inception, has represented the active engagement of all people, and to teach and share with everyone the history, thoughts, and essence of the Jewish people,” Kent Swig said. Hahn Tapper in an email interview reflected, “Literally tens of thousands of students have taken our Jewish Studies courses; 2017-18 alone has had more than 1,000 students in Jewish Studies classes.” The program has brought speakers such as Elie Wiesel, Erik Erikson and Saul Bellow to USF.
During a Q&A panel with Tapper, senior Ayah Moukhtar asked him about the highest and lowest points in his career. But first, she added, “I’m a huge fan of your brother’s.” Tapper laughed and nodded along with amused claps from the audience.
Tapper said the highest point of his career was working on his best-selling book, “The Outpost: An Untold Story of American Valor.” In this book about the surging of an American outpost in Afghanistan by the Taliban, Tapper interviewed over 200 people – including friends and family members of deceased American troops. As for the lowest, he said, “Nobody tells people that when you are about to graduate from college, these next few years are going to be really bad.” He continued, “But ultimately, I just kept trying to keep going. And when I had interviews, I tried to not let people know how upset I was.”
Abree Dominquez (pictured on the front page with Tapper), a senior media studies major, said Tapper’s remarks left her inspired. “I found it to be super important that he spoke about his experiences in journalism, as someone who has a big influence in the way news is produced. I loved that he addressed that we don’t have to have the same beliefs as our political leaders or even align ourselves with them, but they should be decent people.”