A Unique University

The University of Judaism is not easy to categorize. Unique among this country’s Jewish institutions of higher learning, it combines an undergraduate college, a graduate school of education, an MBA program, a long list of continuing education offerings, two nationally renowned think tanks and a 4-year-old theological seminary.

Though the public tends to regard UJ chiefly as a seminary turning out Conservative rabbis, university President Robert Wexler emphasizes that the school as a whole can be considered nondenominational.

This paradox stems from the fact that UJ, at the time of its founding, 50 years ago, had what Wexler calls “two godfathers.” The first was the Jewish Theological Seminary, the New York-based training ground for Conservative rabbis in the United States. Until 1995, when UJ broke ranks by creating its own rabbinical school, JTS used UJ as a West Coast branch, at which prospective rabbis could begin (though not complete) their education.

UJ’s second “godfather” was the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, and particularly its Bureau of Jewish Education. As the only Jewish college in postwar Los Angeles, UJ was entrusted by the Federation to provide teacher training and higher learning for Jews from across the religious spectrum.

A third major influence was the late Mordecai Kaplan, whose unorthodox concept of Judaism as a civilization profoundly shaped the growing school. Wexler calls UJ “Kaplanian” because of its emphasis on leadership development, particularly among members of the lay community.

It is UJ’s undergraduate college that most closely represents Kaplan’s ideals. The 110 students working toward undergraduate degrees are not planning careers as rabbis or Jewish professionals. But because their course of study, whatever their major, must include a healthy dose of Judaism, they are becoming the knowledgeable lay leaders upon whom the Jewish community of the future can depend.

The brand-new Sid B. Levine Service Learning Program will help integrate these undergrads into the Jewish world outside the campus through a carefully designed community service requirement that spans their college years.

The Whizin Center for the Jewish Future, which has pioneered the field of Jewish family education, annually attracts teachers from all over the country to its summer institutes. The Whizin Center is also one of two partners in the ambitious Synagogue 2000 project, which seeks to reinvigorate the synagogue as a center for Jewish communal life in the coming century.

The new Center for Policy Options, a think tank headed by noted scholars, delves into issues that relate to Israel and U.S. policy in the Middle East.

Graduate degree programs at UJ are housed in the Fingerhut School of Education and the Lieber School of Graduate Studies. Advanced degrees in education are granted each year to some 20 students who aspire to be Jewish educators or school administrators. The school of education is also home to a new master’s degree program in psychology that focuses on helping the severely disabled within Jewish settings. The centerpiece of the Lieber School is its specialized MBA program geared to launching careers in the nonprofit sector. For Wexler, this program is one that can attract people of many backgrounds, thus allowing Jewish students to connect with the broader community.

The Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, which is due to ordain its first class of rabbis this spring, created instant controversy because it offered an alternative to the century-old Jewish Theological Seminary. In serving the 1.5 million Jews who live in the western United States, the Ziegler School has chosen to test new ways of training rabbis. Along with their traditional text studies, students are expected to master practical skills, such as how to share the Jewish religion with the laity.

Wexler notes that UJ is unique in having a campus that blends rabbis-to-be with undergrads who lean toward secular lifestyles. “They live together, just like in the real world.” This, he believes, is instructive for the future rabbis, who must learn to work side by side with those who might well be their future congregants.