Soraya Nazarian, AJU and the fine art of philanthropy

Soraya Nazarian has been taking sculpting classes at American Jewish University (AJU) for more than 20 years. She started sculpting at AJU in the late 1980s, and since then has become one of the most renowned Jewish artists in the world. 

Thanks in part to the resources of AJU, she has ascended to the top of her profession. Earlier this month, she decided to repay the institution.

On July 13, AJU announced that the Y&S Nazarian Family Foundation had presented it with a gift of $1 million to AJU to create the Soraya Sarah Nazarian Program in Fine Arts, which will operate under the umbrella of AJU’s Whizin Center for Continuing Education. The funds also will go toward constructing the Soraya Sarah Nazarian Fine Arts Pavilion on AJU’s Bel Air campus. 

“I have sincerely enjoyed the opportunity to take fine-arts classes, such as sculpture, at American Jewish University,” Nazarian said in a statement. “I am pleased to be able to give back to the community that has provided me with so much opportunity to learn and grow.”

Joanna Gerber, vice president for marketing and communication at AJU, said Nazarian’s endowment will create substantial improvements to the school’s fine-arts curriculum. 

“The fine-arts program has always been a really popular and well-intentioned program,” Gerber said. “So to receive this gift is a huge honor because it allows us to continue the work in a meaningful way. We’ll be able to expand our programs and continue with existing programs.”

The Nazarian family has helped advance Jewish culture and fine-arts programs at other universities in the past. In 2005, UCLA used a $5 million donation from the Nazarian Family Foundation to create the Younes and Soraya Nazarian Center for Israel Studies. In 2004, the family gave $1 million to USC to establish the Nazarian Pavilion in the Edward L. Doheny Jr. Memorial Library. 

Officials said AJU will use the gift primarily to address two distinct needs. An estimated 25 percent of the funds will be dedicated to refurbishing and redesigning the campus, including creating an archway in front of the Nazarian Pavilion. A timeline for these construction projects has not yet been established. The other 75 percent of the gift will go toward funding coursework, maintaining resources and facilities, and expanding the program into new disciplines. 

Nazarian’s sculptures are primarily made out of marble and are displayed in Los Angeles and Israel, including at the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the University of Haifa. She also displays her work at regular student shows at AJU. Her sensibility ranges from abstract to impressionistic, and her most prominent themes include her heritage, her identity and the natural world. 

Rabbi Gary Oren, vice president and dean of the Whizin Center for Continuing Education, said Nazarian’s sculptures are the result of intense commitment to her vision.

“Soraya is very dedicated to her craft, and the pieces that I have seen are magnificent,” Oren said. “They come out of her soul, they are powerful and extremely well done.”

Robert Wexler, AJU president, said the donation will help carry on a rich tradition of fine-arts education at the institution. When it was founded in 1947 as the University of Judaism, the curriculum was guided by scholar Mordecai Kaplan’s belief that there should be several different entry points into Jewish scholarship, instead of only traditional rabbinical study. 

“He understood that Jews are going to connect to Jewish life in many ways, including the arts, and when the university was founded, its fine-arts program was one-of-a-kind,” Wexler said. “This new emphasis is to try and re-create that connection with the arts, which we consider to be so important.”