Incoming American Jewish University President Jeffrey Herbst is standing in front of the academic institution’s titular sign on Mulholland Drive as photos are snapped of him for the Jewish Journal’s cover.
Trying to fit Herbst’s 6-foot-3, lean vertical frame into the shot with the equally long, lean, yet horizontal piece of granite that welcomes visitors to the campus is no easy task. Nonetheless, Herbst is relaxed and continues to smile, moving back and forth as directed as the camera clicks away.
It’s that preternatural ease with which he stands there, dressed in a suit but with an open-necked checkered shirt and polka dot socks, that makes Herbst, 57, a study in contradictions. On paper, he has a long, impressive resume that proves his academic chops, and the gravitas to lead this venerable institution. And yet, he is laid-back, welcoming, ready to make jokes about the weather and traffic as he and his wife, Sharon Polansky, move from the East Coast (most recently Washington, D.C.) to the West Coast.
Yet given that he doesn’t officially start his position until July 1, and that he’s headed back to Washington to finish packing up his life before returning here on June 30, Herbst said he’s still figuring out things. “I’m still not sure about the dress code,” he muses. “I wore a tie yesterday.”
Herbst’s willingness to roll with the punches is bound to stand him in good stead as he takes the reins from Robert Wexler, who has helmed American Jewish University (AJU) for the past 25 years. He’ll be taking over a venerable institution that comprises two campuses — on Mulholland Drive and in Simi Valley — and a slew of programs and organizations within the College of Arts and Sciences, the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, the Whizin Center for Continuing Education, the Miller Introduction to Judaism program, Camp Alonim and the Ziering Brandeis Collegiate Institute.
Despite the university’s depth of programming, in its undergraduate program alone, there were only 80 students enrolled in 2017-18; 77 in 2016-17; and 81 in 2015-16.
Herbst is the university’s fourth president since its founding in 1947, and the first who is not a rabbi. He may be the university’s first kippah-less president but he’s got Judaism in his kishkas. He was raised in a Conservative home in New York, sent his two sons and daughter to Solomon Schechter Day School in Bergen County, N.J., and is a member of Adas Israel in Washington.
After a six-month search for its new president, AJU’s Board of Trustees Chair Virginia Maas told the Journal in a telephone interview “there was no conversation among the search committee or the board in any way about [the new president] needing to be a rabbi. We were open to all kinds of possibilities, thinking out of the box on [candidates’] skill sets.”
Mostly, Maas said, “we were looking for a visionary, a person to take a new look at the university and look at [AJU’s] various components, because we’re always trying to continue to grow ourselves.”
The board found that person in Herbst. Maas said while there were many factors that went into the board’s decision, “the best way to sum [Herbst] up is to say that he ‘got’ us. He understood AJU and its place in the L.A. community. He really impressed us with his background, his intelligence and demeanor.”
That background included his position as senior fellow at the Brenthurst Foundation in 2017, president and CEO of the Newseum and the Newseum Institute in Washington, D.C., from 2015-17, and president of Colgate University from 2010-15.
Previously, he served as provost and executive vice president for academic affairs and professor of political science at Miami University in Ohio, and for 18 years he taught at Princeton University, where he also earned his bachelor’s degree summa cum laude in 1983. He received his master’s degree from Yale University in 1985 and a doctorate in 1987, also from Yale.
In addition, he’s the author of the award-winning “States and Power in Africa” and, with several co-authors, the recently published “Making Africa Work.” In addition to many books and articles, he has been published in Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and many other papers around the world.
Despite being steeped in the world of academia and nonprofits, Maas said she and the board also were struck by Herbst’s “welcoming personality and the confidence that emanates from him.”
Indeed, Herbst doesn’t seem fazed even though he’s still getting the lay of La La Land. He said he is excited to learn about the different parts of the city, and has made the wise decision to begin his tenure by living in transitional housing until he and his wife decide where in this vast, sprawling metropolis they want to put down roots. In doing so, he’s already managed to avoid one unique, local custom: His temporary digs won’t require him to navigate the joys of the 405 Freeway.
Herbst was happy to sit down with the Journal, with the only proviso being that until he officially takes up his position on July 1, he was willing to discuss his general vision for AJU but would not comment on specifics.
Jewish Journal: What drew you to apply for a position at a Jewish institution?
Jeffrey Herbst: The appeal of AJU was of an institution that really educated across the entire life cycle, from children and camp to undergraduates, to advanced graduate training, including the training of rabbis. As an educator, the fact that the institution was devoted to all age groups and continuing education also was a tremendous attraction.
[AJU’s] bedrock principles and ethics based on Jewish tradition and teaching was also important to me personally, and I think that AJU can and will be a resource nationally, because I think our society’s asking a lot of questions about how we deal with hatred, how we deal with bigotry, how we relate to each other better. I think [AJU] has insight on that.
“The education [at AJU] has its foundations in a particular tradition, but I don’t think it stops people addressing universalistic questions. In fact, I think it gives them an advantage.”
JJ: The double-edged sword of a Jewish academic institution is that it does operate in a Jewish “bubble.” How do you plan to balance the rich, Jewish education the university offers, with ensuring attendees apply their learning to the outside world?
JH: I think the principles and ethics of the bedrock of the institution came about through millennia of dealing with challenges much like we’re seeing now: How do we relate to each other; how do we teach each other in a civil manner; how do we promote a society for the common good? So the education here has its foundations in a particular tradition, but I don’t think it stops people from addressing universalistic questions. In fact, I think it gives them an advantage. Just like I would say about people who graduated from Georgetown, we see that education — which is certainly based on particular tradition — but have also made wonderful contributions to our society.
JJ: What is your own Jewish background?
JH: I was raised in a Jewish, Conservative tradition. My parents attended synagogue in Peekskill, N.Y., where we grew up. My wife also was raised in the Conservative tradition, and we’ve attended synagogues and raised our children in that tradition. So we’re very comfortable in the Conservative tradition but have been, of course, exposed to wider Jewish practices. Our daughter, Alana, made aliyah in 2016 and serves in the IDF (Israel Defense Forces). That has also led us back to our Jewish roots and made us recommit ourselves, I think, to trying to serve our faith and principles in a constructive manner.
JJ: What do you mean by “led you back”?
JH: Well, we didn’t go astray (laughs). It’s just a moving experience to see your child make aliyah, and by necessity, it made us say, “What more can we do?” It’s been an important experience for our entire family.
JJ: Have you visited Israel often?
JH: Many times. The first time I went was in 1987, on my way back from doing fieldwork in Africa. My wife has some first cousins who made aliyah and we went back to see Alana when she was studying in Israel and during one of her induction [into the army] ceremonies.
I’ve studied organizations in one form or another my entire life — whether they be African governments, militaries that operate economic organizations, or universities, which I’ve studied, participated [in] and led.
JJ: What do you recall about that first visit to Israel?
JH: It was on a long trip. I was doing fieldwork in Zimbabwe and had changed planes in Nairobi to fly on to Tel Aviv. It was a series of long flights overnight. It was really challenging. I got through the airport and was sitting, just drinking a cup of coffee and a bus pulled up. The destination was written on top in Hebrew and it said, “Yerushalayim.” It struck me, for the first time ever, I was reading the Hebrew not from a prayer book and it was a real, living place, and a dream realized. Even though it was just a bus sign, it was a very profound and moving experience.
JJ: Of the university’s four presidents, you are the first one who’s not a rabbi. Does that concern you?
JH: I have been a leader of a variety of academic institutions and I bring a wide variety of experiences in public and private institutions as well as nonprofit management and an important cultural institution in Washington, D.C. I do not have rabbinical training, but I feel that my principles and beliefs are very much aligned with AJU’s mission.
I think [that mission] is rooted in the Jewish tradition and the tradition of learning. I don’t think they can be separated because for millennia, learning and teaching has been so central to the mission of a people who did not have a land, who only by teaching and learning across the generations could perpetuate their traditions and their faith. So I think learning and teaching has been at the core of Judaism and the survival of Judaism for centuries, and it’s also been at the very core of my being because I’ve been a student and an educator, really, my entire life.
JJ: This is your first position on the West Coast. Are your expectations different?
JH: We’ve lived in New Jersey and Ohio and upstate New York and Washington, D.C. We’re one country, but we found you’re really enriched by variations in culture and local practices in the places we’ve been, and we’re looking to appreciate the opportunities of Los Angeles and California. I very much hope that AJU will take even greater advantage of Los Angeles as one of the world’s capitals of media, of storytelling, of technology — all things that are critical to the institution’s future.
JJ: In what way?
JH: We want [AJU] to be involved as this city works through what it means to communicate, to express oneself. Amid all this technological change, those are great issues for a university, which is involved in educating people of all ages and is really central to what our mission will be. I view us being situated in Los Angeles as a tremendous advantage. It’s also the case, of course, just due to history, that a great deal of Jewish institutions in the United States are based on the East Coast and I think that AJU has a particularly important role as a West Coast space and institution.
JJ: Can you expand on what you believe AJU’s central mission will be?
JH: The board’s vision, as detailed in the position description, is what really attracted me: that AJU would become a national resource for Jewish teaching and learning. I find that a very powerful vision in this day and age, and it’s one which will guide my actions. I have much to learn — on campus and engaging in the greater AJU community, engaging in the greater Los Angeles community, and I look forward to discussing how that vision can be made particularly attractive and relevant.
I consider all profound educational programs [at AJU], and again, the fact that the institution educates through the life cycle, I think is powerful. People are living longer and they’re searching, passionately, for ways to enrich their lives, and I think AJU has much to offer.
JJ: Is there anything unique or specific from your other positions that you feel you can bring to your role as president of AJU?
JH: I’ve studied organizations in one form or another my entire life — whether they be African governments, militaries that operate economic organizations, or universities, which I’ve studied, participated [in] and led. So I think I bring wide experience with studying and helping operate a wide variety of different institutions. And I think AJU, like all educational institutions, is going to have to continue to evolve over time, just given how communications and technology are changing. I’ve studied and thought about how organizations evolve for a long period of time and I’m hopeful that will be an advantage.
JJ: Issues of anti-Semitism and anti-Israel sentiment as well as divisiveness over Israeli policies are something AJU has to deal with on a regular basis. Most recently, several AJU faculty members signed their name to a petition decrying the State of Israel’s refusal to recognize the Abayudaya tribe in Uganda as Jews. How willing are you to take a political stance as both an individual and as the university’s representative?
JH: Of course, having just led the Newseum in Washington, which is dedicated to the First Amendment, I believe that we all have strong First Amendment rights in terms of free speech and expression. However, I think you have to realize as the leader of an institution, which does have people of diverse viewpoints, you have to be very careful to separate your personal opinion from what will inevitably be read as an institutional statement if you were to make it. In the proviso at the end of an article that reads, “This does not represent the institution’s position,” is oftentimes not believed or not paid attention to.
I will begin some significant conversations with the board about my public presence and I want to be very careful that I don’t forestall debate on campus about the very important issues you raise by making statements from the president’s office. So I believe in free speech, but I also think the president has a unique responsibility to make sure that a lively, intellectual and academic debate continues on campus.
JJ: You’re going to be surrounded by a plethora of Jewish learning. Do you now have a hankering to take a Talmud or Torah class? Will you?
JH: I have always had a hankering to take more classes and it’s really a wonderful opportunity. I’ve been here too short a time to understand how my office responsibilities will limit my ability to take classes, but beyond formal classes, I want to be deeply involved in the intellectual life on campus, whether that’s discussions with faculty or discussions with students.
In addition to formal classes, there are all kinds of conversations — some structured, some spontaneous — that are occurring every day. Frankly, it’s one of the great privileges of being on a university campus, that you can drop in on those discussions.
JJ: This is your first introduction to many people in the Los Angeles Jewish community. Is there anything in particular you’d like them to know?
JH: I want them to know that AJU can be a critical resource not only for Jews, but for our city, for our region and our society, because it has a window on very difficult questions based on our foundation of ethics and principles. I want them to know that AJU can be a resource for a tremendous number of people who may come here for events or classes, and who will participate in these discussions with us. And I want them to know that I look forward to meeting them.