Jewish Life Blooms at Christian College

From different points along the ever-ascending road up this Malibu hillside, the beckoning ocean, the preternaturally landscaped lawn and the roughly rounded mountains peek through the three-story cross that has been punched out of a solid obelisk.

The breathtaking beauty of Pepperdine University inspires spirituality, surely not unintentional for the founders of this 67-year-old Churches of Christ institution, where instilling moral values based on a love of God is as much a part of the mission as academic excellence.

At the very top of the tiered campus is Pepperdine’s School of Law. On its top floor is the office of Sam Levine, an associate professor of law who happens to be an Orthodox rabbi at the nexus of quietly flourishing Jewish community in the middle of a Christian university.

"I think practicing religion is more natural in this type of setting," said Levine, a 36-year-old New Jersey native who moved to the Pico-Robertson neighborhood two years ago with his wife and two small children. "They understand religion and respect religion."

Levine’s hiring seems to be part of a conscious effort in the past few years to make the university more diverse, in part by building up the Jewish faculty and fostering inclusiveness for Jewish students.

"On the one hand we are not narrow and doctrinaire, but on the other hand we do care about our faith mission and we represent ourselves as a Christian university," Provost Darryl Tippens said. "That raises interesting questions of where people of other faiths fit into the institution, and we’re saying they do fit in."

Faculty and students attest to the spirit of warmth and welcoming that characterizes Pepperdine and its willingness to accommodate Jews, whether it is by scheduling meetings and events around Jewish holidays, not calling on first-year law students the day after Yom Kippur or procuring kosher food.

On a deeper level, Jewish insights and ideas are often sought out in the classroom, meetings and conferences, enriching the religious conversation that is central to the school’s mission.

"I think the key to Pepperdine is that it is such a religious school that they really honor people who come in from other traditions," said Laurie Buchan, the only other self-identified Jewish faculty member at the law school, who organized a mock seder with the Jewish Law Students Association (JLSA).

It hasn’t always been this comfortable for Jews here.

"My impression was that Pepperdine was strictly Christian and that other points of view were not going to be welcome, and that was how I lived my first year," said Nancy Harding, who came to work at the Graduate School of Education and Psychology (GSEP) in 2000.

That changed for Harding when a new dean took over GSEP, eventually initiating a diversity task force. About a year before that, new president Andrew Benton had made diversity a stated goal.

Even with these advances, being a Jew at Pepperdine can be internally dissonant.

Undergrads, including the estimated 30 or 40 Jewish students, are expected to regularly attend convocations, and religious classes are part of the core requirements. While graduate students (there are roughly 300 Jewish students in Pepperdine’s four schools) do not have religious requirements, attending any number of Bible study groups at faculty’s homes can heighten a student’s visibility.

Levine and other faculty and students say no one has tried to proselytize or confront them in a hostile way.

Levine has become the unofficial rabbi of Pepperdine. Jewish students often come to him for counseling, and faculty members consult with him on Jewish law and Tanach. Levine has declined invitations to offer opening prayers at meetings, but has delivered a devotional — basically, a d’var Torah — at a faculty seminar. Even the provost had Levine review a speech on the Bible.

Levine’s class in Jewish law and his extracurricular weekly Torah study classes are attended by Jews and a fair number of non-Jews.

The Torah study was started last year by Bob Hull, a 35-year-old first-year student inspired by the Bible study going on around him. Now, he brings in a borrowed stack of Bibles and kosher Krispy Kremes every week.

Hull said the prevalence of religion at Pepperdine makes him feel at home.

"An invocation at the front of a meeting or get together really informs it as a moment of reflection and spiritual connection," he said.

Emily Berg, a Reform rabbi’s daughter and a JLSA leader, said her connection to Judaism has become stronger while at Pepperdine.

"Before, Judaism was something I did and I removed it from the rest of my life. The Jewish community at Pepperdine really lets you bring it out and incorporate it into your life," said Berg, who has helped build the JSLA from 15 students to about 40.

The visible Jewish presence of JSLA and Levine has had a deeper influence as well.

When Bob Cochran, director of the law school’s Institute on Law, Religion and Ethics, puts together conferences, he always includes Jewish scholars, who, Cochran says, "are our religious cousins."

Cochran also includes in the brochures a "Note to our Jewish Colleagues," stating that lectures on Saturday are kept philosophical in honor of Shabbat, and pointing to local synagogues and the availability of kosher food.

Berg sees accommodations such as this as the core of Pepperdine’s identity.

"Pepperdine is a place for people who believe in something more than just themselves — whether it is religion or the law — people who subscribe to the idea of community and to contributing to more than just your own well being," she said. "They are going to make it a welcoming place for anybody who shares that idea."

Redefining Its Role

For the past 60 years, the Jewish Community Centers of
Greater Los Angeles (JCCGLA) has been the glue which, until recently, has kept
area Jewish community centers largely flourishing. As the organization
struggles to reinvent itself as a consulting business, some in the Jewish community
said they have little intention of tapping the group for its services and
wonder whether it should even continue to exist.

If the JCCGLA were to disband, supporters worry JCCs would
lose their biggest support system and could eventually close their doors.

Critics of JCCGLA, which nearly sunk little more than a year
ago during a financial crisis, question whether it has the expertise and
credibility to provide the accounting, fundraising, human resources and other
assistance it plans to make available. Organizers at Westside JCC in Los
Angeles, Valley Cities JCC in Van Nuys and West Valley JCC in West Hills, the
three centers slated later this year to sever formal links with JCCGLA, said
they would be better served by going it alone.

JCCGLA executives said they have brought financial
discipline to their organization by balancing the budget, replacing key
personnel and beginning the process of healing the wounds brought on by its
recent financial crisis. With a new emphasis on fundraising, a more active
board and decades of experience, JCCGLA has positioned itself to be an advocate
for and partner of the trio of centers.

“We have a knowledge base that allows us to help JCCs grow
and to provide the best possible services to their constituencies,” said Nina
Lieberman Giladi, executive vice president of JCCGLA. “In addition, we will
provide services at a reduced cost, a substantial benefit to the JCCs.”

JCCGLA President Marty Jannol said the group is “finally
getting to take a moment to look ahead rather than take a broom and clean up
the mess from the past.”

However, the past still haunts JCCGLA, and, to some
observers, disqualifies it from playing a meaningful role at the Jewish centers
going forward.

JCCGLA is saddled with about $5 million in debt, Lieberman
Giladi said, and might have to sell centers or other holdings if a cash crunch

That figure includes $2.8 million owed to The Jewish
Federation of Greater Los Angeles, an $800,000 bank loan — secured by the North
Valley JCC property — and $1.2 million to $1.4 million in “special funds”
JCCGLA spent on operations during its crisis but must return to its coffers,
she said.

JCCGLA has assets worth more than $16 million, Lieberman
Giladi said. However, at the behest of The Federation, JCCGLA has put a lien on
two properties worth an estimated $1.1 million, including the site of the
Silver Lake Independent JCC. That means The Federation would receive the
proceeds from any sale.

Detractors said JCCGLA’s top two executives are overpaid in
light of its recent troubles. Both Lieberman Giladi and Associate Executive
Vice President Rafe Pery will earn $100,000 or more this year, excluding
benefits. The organization has laid off 150 employees since October 2001 and
now employs 220.

Lieberman Giladi said those salaries are in line with
leaders at other JCCs across the country. She added that she personally
contributed $10,000 last year to JCCGLA’s renewal campaign and works tirelessly
on behalf of the centers.

“I’m proud to say we’ve budgeted increases for all our staff
this year, but I’ve declined mine,” she said.

Not all JCCGLA workers appear to have received the same
generous offer.

In an attempt to slash costs to remain in business, JCCGLA
has unilaterally frozen salaries, cut sick days and eliminated the health
benefits of some unionized teachers at local JCCs under its control, according
to union officials.

Jon Lepie, a consultant to the American Federation of State,
County and Municipal Employees, Local 800, said JCCGLA’s move could force
teachers, who earn an average of $22,000 annually, to abandon Jewish centers
for higher-paying jobs. Union officials also challenge the legality of JCCGLA
imposing a settlement on employees while they say negotiations are taking

Another issue of concern to JCCGLA’s critics is the future
role it will play at the local centers.

“I believe, and I think many of the other board members at
Valley Cities would agree, that at this point we could probably handle the functions
[JCCGLA is proposing to offer] on our own,” said Art Verity, a former Valley
Cities JCC president and current advisory board member. “We feel we have the
leadership, staff and resources to do it ourselves.”

Bill Kabaker, a former advisory board member at Valley
Cities JCC who resigned in August, said he has little faith in JCCGLA because
of its inability to raise enough money, increase its membership and
significantly expand programs over the past year.

“I think the incompetence that has gone on is jeopardizing
the centers,” he said.

Lieberman Giladi countered that JCCGLA raised $900,000 in
operating and capital funds from donors last year, including a record $250,000
from JCCGLA’s 22-member board. JCCGLA plans soon to hire a full-time
development director to keep the money flowing and is sponsoring a fundraising
seminar for directors in early February, she said.

The state of Los Angeles’ Jewish centers also irks critics,
who blame JCCGLA for JCC’s problems.

For instance, Bay Cities JCC was the only Jewish Community
Center in the United States to have closed in the past two years, the JCC
Association of North America said.

Meanwhile, the JCC in Long Beach moved four years ago into a
new $14.5 million center that includes an indoor basketball court and 25-yard
outdoor pool. In Orange County, construction is slated to begin within three
months on a $20 million JCC complex in Irvine that will include an on-site
library, a 50,000-square-foot health and fitness facility, a state-of-the-art
theater and an indoor cafe.

Elsewhere, a new JCC has just opened in Scottsdale, Ariz.,
and a center in Salt Lake City was renovated and expanded.

“L.A.’s Jewish community centers are a joke compared to the
rest of the country,” said a former JCC program director in Los Angeles. “We
have the second largest Jewish community in the United States, and this is what
we’ve got to show for it?”

By contrast, metropolitan New York, the country’s biggest
Jewish community, has 27 JCCs, according to the JCC Association.

Lieberman Giladi said JCCGLA has taken important steps
toward rebuilding trust and positioning the organization for the future.

At least one center that has already gained independence
appears healthier now than before it severed cut ties with JCCGLA.

When North Valley JCC in Granada Hills reopened its doors in
July 2002 after JCCGLA briefly shut it down for budgetary reasons, the center
had 84 paying members and only a small early childhood education summer camp
program, said Elaine Fox, president of North Valley JCC Inc. Now, it has 122
members and offers senior activities, early childhood education and
after-school childcare and enrichment, among other programs.

North Valley JCC has raised more than $90,000 in the past
year and is negotiating with JCCGLA to take ownership of the center, a purchase
that would be funded by private donations, government grants and investors, Fox
said. North Valley JCC has no plans to tap JCCGLA for future services, she

JCCGLA has allowed North Valley JCC to use its facility
rent-free since September and has given center executives extra time to come up
with a plan for purchasing the property, Lieberman Giladi said.

JCCGLA will continue to operate the Zimmer Children’s
Museum, the Shalom Institute in Malibu and the Conejo Valley JCC after the
Westside, Valley Cities and West Valley JCCs become independent.

Criticisms notwithstanding, JCCGLA has some strong

Michael Brezner, chairman of the Valley Cities JCC advisory
board, said JCCGLA has been a valued partner as the center readies itself for
independence. A JCCGLA executive, for instance, helped the advisory board put
together a proposal asking The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles for a
$237,000 grant.

Brezner, unlike fellow Valley Cities board member Verity,
said that most of the board wouldn’t hesitate turning to JCCGLA for accounting
and other services, especially if the price is right.

“I have no ax to grind with JCCGLA. The agency in the past
year has done everything in its power to keep us open,” Brezner said.
“Everybody wants to keep digging up the dirt from the past, and it gets very
annoying. It’s not productive.”

However, he said several issues remained to be hammered out
with JCCGLA, including whether Valley Cities and other centers would be saddled
with the agency’s debt.

Federation President John Fishel said he sees JCCGLA playing
a role at the centers once they become independent.

“I think like any other organization, [JCCGLA] needs
stability, credibility and the support of the groups that it is proposing to
work with,” he said. “Then, I think anything is possible.”

Over the past 10 months, JCCGLA and Federation, its biggest
benefactor, have negotiated on debt repayment and a host of other issues.
Fishel said recent talks between the two groups have been constructive.

In 2002, The Federation earmarked $2.9 million for JCCGLA.
That figure excludes $600,000 The Federation spends on programs shed by JCCGLA
during its financial crisis and taken over by Jewish Family Service, including
SOVA, the Israel Levin Senior Center and Westside Adult Day Care.

As JCCGLA fights for relevance, it finds itself on the
defensive in increasingly acrimonious negotiations with its unionized JCC

Under JCCGLA’s proposal, which it believes is binding,
teachers working less than 271¼2 hours a week will lose medical and dental
benefits and all vacation and sick leave. Veteran teachers with more than two
years JCC experience will see their sick days shrink from 18 to six, which
JCCGLA said is the norm in the nonprofit world. The number of paid holidays
will remain unchanged.

Lieberman Giladi said JCCGLA has taken the action to keep
its budget balanced and avoid layoffs.

About 12 out of the centers’ 70 teachers and other employees
stand to lose their benefits, the union said.

Lepie said JCCGLA’s actions have devastated teacher morale
and could lead to an exodus of staff. If that happens, parents might pull their
children from classrooms, taking membership fees with them.

The union has filed a claim with the National Labor
Relations Board, charging unfair labor practices. JCCGLA attorney Frederic
Richman said his organization has the legal right to pursue the course it has
chosen. Negotiations are still ongoing.

Richard Rosett, a JCCGLA board member who also sits on the
Valley Cities advisory board, said he is confident JCCGLA can lead the area’s
centers to long-term success and stability.

“JCCGLA has developed a strategy and approach to its
existence that will permit both it and individual centers to function
effectively and efficiently,” he said.

“We have a lot of work to do,” Rosett added.