Middle East artists depolarize politics in USC class


On a recent weekday morning, nearly 20 USC freshmen gathered for a seminar that looked at the contemporary Israeli and Palestinian experience through literature, poetry, film and television. But instead of highlighting the differences between the two groups, as is so often the case, this semester-long class, which ended the last week of April, focused on what they have in common.

“Exile and Identity in Modern Israeli and Palestinian Culture” was taught by Yaffa Weisman. Weisman, 64, is director of the Frances-Henry Library at Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR), which is located near the USC campus. She is also an adjunct associate professor at HUC-JIR’s Jerome H. Louchheim School for Judaic Studies, which has been offering Jewish studies courses to USC undergraduates since 1971, the year HUC-JIR moved to its current location. 

In the past, Weisman, whose specialty is comparative literature, has taught the “Literature of Resistance,” a class she described as “dealing with how various cultures and societies deal with repression,” also through the Louchheim School. But the exile and identity class was the first time she offered a class focusing solely on modern Israelis and Palestinians.

“In my ‘Literature of Resistance’ class, I have been careful about not teaching literature about the conflict, talking myself into the idea that I may be too biased,” Weisman said. “But then I realized it doesn’t matter where I go. I am still going to be an Israeli.

“My own politics are of reconciliation and peace,” added Weisman, who grew up in Ramla, Israel, in a peaceful neighborhood of Jews, Christians and Muslims. “I didn’t know this was an ideal picture. Jews and Arabs lived together in my life, so I started looking into ways to convey that idea in nonpolitical ways: the idea that there is or should be hope, and there are points of reconciliation, and that there are more points of commonalities than differences between Palestinians and Israelis. I wanted to show how both cultures express ideas and feelings about the situation. But it felt too broad. So I started focusing on two concepts: the ideas of exile and identity.”

Weisman, who has a background in theater, was inspired to create the class, in part, by conversations she had with friends. “I have not lived in Israel for 35 years,” she said. “But I am very tuned in when it comes to collaboration. I have heard from a lot of my colleagues in Israel about work that is being done in theater and realizing there is a whole world of coexistence. Poets talk to each other, writers talk to each other, filmmakers.” 

Her goal, she said, was “to have the students see that this particular conflict is more than the sum of news headlines, and that creative expressions of Israelis and Palestinians shed light on the human aspects of the conflict.”

Among the works the students examined in Weisman’s class were poems by Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai and Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish. They saw several films, including the 1964 satire “Sallah,” generally considered the most successful film in Israeli history, as well as Palestinian director Elia Suleiman’s semi-autobiographical 2009 film, “The Time That Remains.” They read short stories by Israeli Benjamin Tammuz and Palestinian Ghassan Kanafani and listened to the national anthems for both Israel and Palestine. Of course, Weisman was limited in her choices; she could use only those works that had been translated into English.

“I tried very much not to be one-sided,” Weisman said. “I didn’t shy away from what for me are very painful descriptions of Palestinian refugees in 1948. I chose texts that show both the pain and the hope, the aspiration.” 

The works that were the subject of the most spirited classroom discussions, according to Weisman, were two interviews. One was a lengthy interview of Darwish by Helit Yeshurun, an Israeli poet. In it, Darwish says, among other things: “Do you know why we, the Palestinians, are famous? Because you are our enemy. Interest in the Palestine problem comes by way of interest in the Jewish problem. … You have given us defeat, weakness and publicity.” In the other interview, from Amos Oz’s 1983 book, “In the Land of Israel,” the Israeli writer sits down with three Palestinian men in Ramallah. They bond over cigarettes and Coca-Cola and talk about power, peace and war.

Based on conversations she had with students and reflection papers they wrote, Weisman considers the class a success and plans to teach it again next spring. “Some of [the students] are at least willing to consider two things: that art can change the world and that there is an ongoing dialogue. And once you open yourself to listening to the other side, or both sides, you get a different perspective on the conflict and I think a little more hopeful perspective.”

Noah Etessani, 18, found the class enlightening. “All the exposure I have gotten on this topic has been very one-sided: just pro-Israel, not really giving voice to the Palestinians,” said Etessani, who grew up in Beverly Hills and is Jewish.

Now, he said, “I have a lot more sympathy toward the ordinary Palestinian people, not the people in charge, [but] the people just born there, trying to live their everyday lives. I definitely came out of [the class] feeling different.

“At the end of the day, I really realized that the vast majority of people on both sides are ordinary people trying to live their lives normally.”

Another student in the seminar had a more personal takeaway. Jess Jun, 18, who was born in Korea and came to the United States when she was 6 — her family lives in Orange County — said she now has a general understanding of the situation in the Middle East and the inner workings of the Israeli and Palestinian people. 

But, Jun added, “I myself, as an immigrant, had trouble determining if I was Korean or American or Korean-American. But taking the class and seeing what Israelis and Palestinians felt made me think about how I should be thinking about the issue. I know [my] issue is very incomparable to what they are going through. But I do think I was able to relate in some way.”

Gerald Bubis, communal service pioneer and peace activist, dies at 91


Gerald B. Bubis, who pioneered and shaped the field of Jewish communal service and was a passionate champion of a progressive Israel, died Friday evening (Aug. 21) at his Los Angeles home. His death at 91 followed a series of lengthy illnesses.

Funeral services will be held at 12:30 p.m., Monday (Aug. 24) at Mount Sinai Memorial Park, 5950 Forest Lawn Drive, Los Angeles 90068.

Bubis, whose tall, muscular frame, leonine head and white beard gave him the look of a Hollywood style biblical patriarch, was born in Winnipeg, Canada, but as a youngster moved with his sister and divorced mother to Minneapolis.

213-765-2106) or Americans for Peace Now, 5870 W. Olympic Blvd., Los Angeles 90036 (phone 323-934-3480).

Teaching the teachers


In 2007, Michael Zeldin spoke to the Jewish Journal about DeLeT (Day School Leadership Through Teaching; it also means “door” in Hebrew), the education program designed to train prospective Jewish day school teachers at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR). Zeldin, director of DeLeT and HUC-JIR’s Rhea Hirsch School of Education, told the Journal with confidence that he believes DeLeT, with its emphasis on experience-based learning and well-rounded curricula, “will transform the face of Jewish education.” 

Eight years later, DeLeT has become a highly successful Jewish education program. On July 16, faculty, staff, students and alumni gathered at HUC-JIR to recognize the program’s 13th anniversary with a b’nai mitzvah celebration. Zeldin said the 118 DeLeT graduates have lived up to his vision. 

“They are the fulfillment of our dream,” Zeldin said. “That these people who come into this program are willing to dedicate their lives to teaching Jewish children is just incredibly meaningful.”

When it was founded in 2002, DeLeT was the first education program that specifically trained participants to teach general studies courses in Jewish day schools. DeLeT’s curriculum integrates Jewish values and customs into general studies and emphasizes learning through experience. The school has formed partnerships with several Los Angeles day schools to place students as interns in classrooms, where they learn on the job while attending classes. 

In 2008, the 13-month program became licensed by California to confer the multiple-subject teaching credential to its graduating students, making it one of the only religious education programs able to do so. This academic year, DeLeT is launching a new track designed to prepare Hebrew-language teachers for day schools. The L’Ivrit course of study is based on the classic DeLeT curriculum, with modified sections of some courses as well as additional courses, such as Hebrew pedagogy, specifically for L’Ivrit students. 

In a speech at the b’nai mitzvah ceremony, Zeldin noted how state officials referred to DeLeT as “one-of-a-kind.”

Zeldin also said more than 90 percent of all DeLeT graduates are hired as day school teachers immediately after completing the program, which he proudly claims to be an exceptionally high rate of job placement. 

“What we’ve found so far is that even though schools don’t usually hire brand-new teachers out of a credential program, because our teachers are so well-prepared and had a yearlong internship at a Jewish day school, they’ll be hired as teachers right out of this program,” Zeldin said. 

When the program first started, Zeldin and his staff recruited people to join the program’s pilot class and convinced local day schools to partner with them. 

Eileen Horowitz, DeLeT’s education director, said the reputation of the program’s graduates quickly increased DeLeT’s prestige, and now the school gets flooded with applications, which has allowed it to raise standards of admission. 

The program, Horowitz said, has “an array of students. Some are straight out of college; some are looking for second careers. Some are 23, 24, and some are over 50.”

DeLeT looks for ambitious and open-minded “future teacher-leaders,” regardless of their previous work history or background, Horowitz said. “When it became more competitive, we could really look for the brightest and the best,” she said. 

Horowitz admires DeLeT for breeding the type of educator who wants to make as much of a difference as possible. She has worked in education for more than 40 years, including as head of school at Temple Israel of Hollywood, one of DeLeT’s partner schools. But, she said, when she first started teaching, she and her peers didn’t think in terms of career advancement or see themselves as leaders.

“When we started out, we thought, ‘OK, I’ll be a classroom teacher, I’ll get summers off,’ ” she said. “We know there are now many in our schools who have aspirations to be the best they can be, which in turn makes students the best they can be, which in turn makes the school the best it can be. So they ascend into different positions.”

DeLeT also has an active and supportive alumni network, which Horowitz believes provides a healthy space for peer relationships, especially when someone needs advice or counsel from a fellow teacher. 

Michelle Barton graduated from DeLeT in 2011 and teaches general studies to third-graders at Pressman Academy. She also is the lead coordinator for DeLeT’s alumni network. She said the network helps reinforce DeLeT’s core values among graduates once they enter the workforce. 

“We really try and support our teachers after they graduate from the program,” she said.

“DeLeT believes that teachers are lifelong learners, and we try to foster that and model that for our students.”

Like many of the program’s graduates, Barton speaks very highly of the curriculum and said her time at DeLeT was, to borrow Zeldin’s language, transformative. 

“For me, it was the most formative experience of my career,” Barton said. “It’s incredible to be in a cohort of learners and to learn from each other. It’s just a beautiful way to give back to the Jewish community and teach Jewish children.”

Bridging the gap: A new paradigm for change


I had occasion recently to revisit the Masters Thesis I wrote in 1972 for my degree in Contemporary Jewish Studies from Brandeis University. I needed to reference it for an article I’m writing… and I was curious to see whether I would have been able to pass the Zelikow School’s thesis requirement. (I believe I would have, but since I’m also the grader, I may not be a reliable judge.)

The title of my thesis was “The Jewish Whole Earth Catalogue: Theory and Development.” It was the precursor to The Jewish Catalog which was published the following year and became a kind of manifesto of and guide to the Jewish counterculture of the 1960s and 70s.

I am proud to say, I was a charter member of the Jewish counterculture of the 1960s and 70s… as were a number of people in this sanctuary. Now it is true that the late-60s Jewish counterculture committed a number of sins for which we are still confessing:

  • We were arrogant…
  • We were naive…
  • We were narcissistic…
  • We were impatient…

 

But we did have a legitimate critique of American Jewish life, and we were offering some new ideas for its reinvigoration. To be clear, we weren’t just pointing out the Jewish community’s faults and admonishing it to change its priorities. As activists, we were working to make the change happen, to “be the change we wanted to see,” to use a contemporary aphorism. And this was not a case of “Hadesh yomanu k’kedem” (“Renew our days as of old.”), but rather of “Ev’en ma’asu ha-bonim hoyetah le’rosh pina.” (“The stones which the last generation discarded, have become the cornerstone of the new building.”) We wanted to revolutionize the American Jewish community from top to bottom.

As an aside, I recently read a quote by Garry Trudeau where he said “…one of the nicer things about youthful cluelessness… is that it's so frequently confused with courage.” But back to our revolutionary agenda.

Break up the synagogues. Bring the rabbis down from their pulpits. Create new rituals that speak to the issues of the day, like Arthur Waskow’s Freedom Seder or celebrations of women’s experience, like simchat bat ceremonies. Create new ritual objects which reflect the aesthetic of hiddur mitzvah, like multi-colored tallesim or hand-calligraphed, egalitarian ketubbot. And above all, empower the individual Jew to take the tradition into his or her own hands. The 60s Jewish counterculture was the original Jewish DIY movement… whether building your own sukkah, baking your own hallah, or moving to Israel to build a new kibbutz…

As captured in the somewhat frothy introduction to The Jewish Catalog (whose subtitle, btw, was “A Do-it-Yourself Kit”), the objective was to “move away from prefabricated, spoon-fed, nearsighted Judaism into the stream of possibilities for personal responsibility and physical participation. This entails,” it continued, “returning the control of the Jewish environment to the hands of the individual – through accessible knowledge of the what, where, who and how of contemporary Judaism.”

Although we were certainly accused of it, this was not just Baby Boomer narcissism and self-entitlement; this was Baby Boomer optimism and self-empowerment. We saw how all around us the larger American society was undergoing radical change, almost overnight… civil rights, feminism, the anti-Vietnam movement, the sexual revolution, identity politics, ethnic pride… And we asked, why not the Jewish community, as well?

Surprisingly, both to ourselves and to our elders, we actually had a modicum of success; we had an impact… and, I would argue, a positive impact… on the character and direction of American Jewish life. Over the past 50 years, the community has changed in some significant ways as a result of the attitudes, ideas and initiatives fomented by this motley group of 20- and 30-somethings. Synagogues changed: they created havurot, not quite the commune-like structure of Havurat Shalom in Boston, but a real effort to down-size and make the synagogue more intimate. Communal priorities changed: after the student take-over of the General Assembly of the Council of Jewish Federations in 1969, Jewish education and identity catapulted to the top of the communal agenda. Prayer changed: people started praying like they meant it… with kavannah/intentionality often accompanied by Shlomo Carlbach’s niggunim and later with Debbie Friedman’s prayer songs. And attitudes changed: feminist theology and spirituality, together with pressure for gender equality, transformed the face of American Judaism.

Now, this is all very well and good, and we can all pat ourselves on the back, but why is this relevant to today’s ceremonies? Let me suggest three reasons:

  1. First and most important… Because the work is not over. Major changes are needed in some critical areas of American Jewish life in order to stay relevant and compelling.
  2. Second, I bring this up to remind ourselves that, as my wife likes to say, “The way things are is not the way they have to be.” While change is inevitable; creative and adaptive change is a human invention… We can make it happen.
  3. And third, I raise this now… davka because this is not the 60s. The Jewish community in the first decades of the 21st century has very different structural, organizational, generational and psychological challenges than it had in the middle of the last century. And we need very different thinking to address these challenges.

 

The work is not over… change is possible…and we need a new generation of leaders who are attuned to the underlying ethos of the times…

  • The Jewish community needs leaders who can help us keep up with the changes coursing through modern society… whether technological or sociological.
  • The Jewish community needs leaders who can create anew or re-engineer the Jewish organizational infrastructure which is no longer working for the next generations emerging onto the scene.
  • The Jewish community needs leaders who can make Jewish life a more competitive option to the myriad attractions and distractions of contemporary secular culture.
  • The Jewish community needs leaders who can renegotiate our emotional attachment to Israel, in light of ever changing present-day realities.
  • The Jewish community needs leaders who can actualize the global Jewish shtetl and give contemporary meaning to “Kol Yisroel arevim ve’b’ze.” (All Israel is responsible for each other.)

 

The work is not over… and the Jewish community needs you, our graduates! Our Millennial graduates!

It’s interesting that in the Millennial generation, the old socio-political dichotomy of the 60s and 70s… with the stogy Establishment, on the one side, and the Baby Boomer counterculture, on the other… doesn’t exist anymore. In the 60s, these were adversaries with very different world-views and values, and the Baby Boomers had to mount a full-scale assault… a revolution, in the terminology of the day… in order to get the Establishment to even recognize them, let alone, relinquish some of its power to them. Sometimes the assault was literal, like the March on Washington in 1963, the public burning of draft cards, the protests outside the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1968, Woodstock… and in the Jewish world, the student take-over of the General Assembly, the Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry, and the creation of alternatives to mainstream institutions… havurot instead of synagogues, the Conference on Alternatives in Jewish Education instead of the Bureaus of Jewish Education, Breira as an alternative voice on post-1967 Israel, Response magazine as an alternative voice to Commentary, the Jewish Student Press Service as an alternative voice to what passed for Jewish journalism… There wasn’t a Generation Gap; there was generational warfare.

But that dichotomy doesn’t exist today… not in the broader society and not in the Jewish community. The Boomers and the Millennials, far from being adversaries, actually have a lot in common. Millennial kids generally like their Boomer parents… they still listen to their music, they still have dinner and go to the movies with them… some even still live at home with them. If there’s a generation gap, it’s not in world-view, it’s in technology. If there’s a critique, it’s not about the need for change, it’s about the pace of change.

So too in the Jewish world. The counterculture has been replaced by social entrepreneurs… and the establishment has been replaced by legacy organizations. But these are not adversaries.

They are not adversaries… however, they do tend to occupy different spaces and operate in different orbits. The legacy organizations have their national conferences (the JFNA General Assembly, the URJ Biennial, the JCPA Plenum…)… and the start-ups have theirs (Slingshot Day, the ROI Summit, the newCAJE conference…). The legacy organizations have their news outlets (JTA, the Forward, the Jewish Journal…); the start-ups have theirs (Heeb Magazine, Tablet Magazine, Jewcy…). The legacy organizations have their preferred social media, primarily Facebook; the start-ups have theirs, primarily Twitter.

So while they are not antithetical to one another, they unfortunately have very little to do with each other. I say that it is unfortunate, because in spite of their differences, they are actually allies and need each other. They are both contributing, in their own ways, to what Jumpstart has termed the “Jewish Innovation Ecosystem.” Both legacy organizations and new social enterprises are looking for innovative ways to keep the Jewish brand alive… looking for ways to apply Jewish values, wisdom and world-view to the challenges facing today’s Jewish community.

They are not adversaries; they are allies. And they will only succeed if they work together to build alliances of innovation and change based on their common objective… an American Jewish community that can help Jews… whether affiliated or unaffiliated, whether in-married or inter-married, whether for a two-state solution or against a two-state solution… an American Jewish community that can help Jews spiritually, intellectually and culturally navigate and negotiate the challenges of the contemporary world, both internally and externally.

This is where you come in. You, our graduating students. You can be the bridge between these two reluctant allies. You, our graduating students, are in the unique position of understanding the motivations of both, of having your feet in both, and, therefore, of seeing where linkages and partnerships can be forged. Whether you are in the rabbinate, education or nonprofit management… Whether you end up working for “legacy organizations” – like federations, JCCs, camps, Hillels, advocacy groups, defense agencies, synagogues and schools – or for start-ups, incubators or social enterprises, your unique role is to ask the meta-questions and bring together the strongest and most creative elements in both spheres to address them: What is the best way to provide Jewish education in an age of Google Search and MOOCs? How do we take the cacophony of special interest organizations and turn them into a chorus of renewal? In an age of virtual community and global community, are there new ways to think about Jewish community?

Whether you end up working for legacy organizations or for start-ups, your most valuable skill will be to leverage your relationships to create synergies… to help established organizations adopt social enterprises and social entrepreneurs as their R&D departments… and to help promising start-ups affiliate with more established organizations in order to gain the sustainability, strategic management and infrastructure that they can’t achieve by themselves.

We are beginning to see some examples of this synergy… and its impact:

  • Locally, the Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles has, for a number of years already, been providing significant sized “Cutting Edge Grants”… some to startups and some to established organizations… but all of them designed to push innovation in the LA Jewish community.
  • On a national level, JTA, which describes itself as The Global Jewish News Source, but whose initials actually stand for Jewish Telegraphic Agency (a decidedly last century creation, if there ever was one), has expanded its media empire by incorporating MyJewishLearning.com, Kveller, and Jewniverse… all Millenial creations.
  • And on an international level, the Joint Distribution Committee is spawning an intrapreneurial venture entitled Entwine which is attracting young Jewish professionals to its global and service learning agenda.

 

These are just beginnings, but they are showing the power of bringing legacy organizations together with newer social enterprises to create a truly all-embracing Jewish Innovation Ecosystem. Relationships can be developed. Linkages can made. Entrepreneurs can become intra-preneurs. Creative and adaptive change can happen. And you… our graduates… our nonprofit professionals, educators and rabbis… can make it happen. Whether you find yourselves in legacy organizations or in young start-ups, you must be the connectors… because you have the skills, education and perspective to forge the partnerships that the American Jewish community needs to face the difficult, but exhilarating challenges ahead.

So, don’t worry about your “youthful cluelessness.” Have “courage,” go forth and make the connections. Because we’re depending on you. Kan y’hi ratzon.

Moving and shaking: FIDF, AJC and more


More than 15 Los Angeles residents returned home on Nov. 21 after participating in a weeklong, sold-out national leadership mission to Israel organized by the Friends of the Israel Defense Forces (FIDF). The mission brought together 160 FIDF members from 58 American cities, including the Los Angeles-based contingent, to check out Israeli military sites and speak with Israel Defense Forces (IDF) personnel in hopes of garnering new perspective on military proceedings transpiring on the ground. 

Participants on the trip heard from IDF soldiers serving on the front lines, toured an Iron Dome missile battery in southern Israel, visited wounded soldiers and met with beneficiaries of FIDF programs such as Lone Soldiers, which provides assistance to those in the IDF without parents in Israel, and recipients of IMPACT! Scholarships, an effort to contribute financial aid for higher education to former Israeli soldiers.

Abraham Stein, 78, took part in the mission, searching for insight into the experience of Israeli soldiers and a potential cause to which to donate.

“To see the faces of the soldiers, to look into their eyes, you see they’re just children. We see many things from over here, but once there, you see the dedication, the passion, the assertiveness and the sense of calm,” he told the Journal. “It was striking. I always wanted to donate to Israel and have that be a part of my legacy. Now, after seeing what the IDF does and where my donation would be going, I can make it.” 

Traveling with Stein were Ana Mancia, Adam Bess, Ludmila Bess, Leo David, Igal Elyassi, Carol and Michael Erde, Michael Flesch, April Hardy, Elliot Megdal, Janet and David Polak, Ari and Rebecca Ryan and Adam Sher.

— Oren Peleg, Contributing Writer 

 


The American Jewish Committee Los Angeles’ (AJC-LA) annual Chanukah celebration drew 150 attendees to The Mark for Events on Dec. 17. AJC members, community leaders, diplomats and elected officials, including AJC-LA director Rabbi Mark Diamond, led a candle-lighting ceremony, in which “each candle represented one of the eight elements of American-Jewish values: democracy, global peace, unity, diversity, learning, tradition, Israel and hope,” according to an AJC-LA press release. Diamond also discussed the importance of defending Jewish rights and democratic values here in the United States and across the world.

From left: AJCLA Vice President Ira Handelman; L.A. City Attorney Mike Feuer and AJCLA Director Rabbi Mark Diamond participate in a candle-lighting ceremony. Photo by David Medill

From left: AJCLA Vice President Ira Handelman; L.A. City Attorney Mike Feuer and AJCLA Director Rabbi Mark Diamond participate in a candle-lighting ceremony. Photo by David Medill

 

AJC is an advocacy organization that focuses on Israeli matters, domestic issues and more. Its Los Angeles chapter is one of 22 regional offices in the U.S. 

Participants in the lighting ceremony last month also included Assemblymembers Sebastian Ridley-Thomas and Matt Dababneh, L.A. City Attorney Mike Feuer, L.A. City Councilmember Paul Koretz, the Rt. Rev. Alexei Smith of the Los Angeles Archdiocese and Randolph Dobbs of the Los Angeles Baha’i Center. 

AJC-LA President Dean Schramm “addressed the audience about living the lessons of Chanukah,” the press release said. AJC-LA Vice President Ira Handelman also took part in the festivities.


California State Sen. Robert M. (Bob) Hertzberg has joined the government and regulatory law practice group of the law firm Glaser Weil, according to a Nov. 5 press release, and will serve as Of Counsel.

Robert M. (Bob) Hertzberg, Photo courtesy of Glaser Weil

 

The recently elected Democrat who serves the 18th District will “advise [Glaser Weil clients] on local issues, matters in other states, and on international projects,” the release said. Hertzberg will “not advise clients on matters that may come before the legislature or state agencies,” according to the release.

He is working at Glaser Weil with Thomas Levyn, former mayor of Beverly Hills, and Timothy McOsker, former chief deputy city attorney for Los Angeles and chief of staff to former L.A. Mayor Jim Hahn. The firm describes itself as one of the “nation’s premier midsized law firms, with approximately 100 attorneys.”

“We are honored to have Bob join our firm,” Glaser Weil Managing Partner Peter Weil said in the release. “His 35 years of experience as a lawyer, work-ethic, dedication and vast knowledge will contribute to the continued growth of the firm.”

“Bob will be an excellent addition to our firm,” Partner Patricia L. Glaser echoed in prepared remarks.

Hertzberg has been a partner at Mayer Brown, LLP for the past 12 years. He previously served on the board of the Public Policy Institute of California and as chairman, twice, for the Los Angeles Economic Development Corp. He is currently a member of the board at USC’s Price School of Public Policy and Pepperdine’s School of Public Policy.

Meanwhile, Hertzberg added a familiar face to his public office’s staff. Barri Worth Girvan, who previously served as The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles’ director of community engagement programs and government affairs, is now serving as Hertzberg’s district director in the San Fernando Valley, having joined the team on Dec. 18.


Fredi Rembaum, assistant vice president for institutional advancement of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR), was celebrated Dec. 8 during a retirement lunch at the Reform seminary’s Jack H. Skirball Campus in Los Angeles.

Among those who feted Rembaum were Rabbi Aaron D. Panken, HUC-JIR president; Joshua Holo, dean of HUC-JIR’s Los Angeles campus; and Steven Windmueller, a longtime faculty member and former dean of the L.A. campus. Her husband, Rabbi Joel Rembaum, former senior rabbi of Temple Beth Am, led haMotzi.

Before coming more than 10 years ago to HUC-JIR — which she also has served as director of development for the Western region — Rembaum worked for The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles for 20 years in a number of capacities, focusing on fundraising and community development. 

From left: Joshua Holo, dean of HUC-JIR’s L.A. campus; Sue Neuman Hochberg, chair of the Western region board of overseers; Fredi Rembaum, assistant vice president for institutional advancement; and Rabbi Aaron D. Panken, HUC-JIR president, at Rembaum’s retirement lunch on Dec. 8. Photo courtesy of HUC-JIR

 

She will not be replaced at HUC-JIR. Instead, officials said, her work will be continued by the team of Cathee Weiss, director of development for the Western region, and Aaron Herman, assistant director of development. Rembaum planned to work through the end of December.

— Ryan E. Smith, Associate Editor

 

Moving and Shaking highlights events, honors and simchas. Got a tip? Email ryant@jewishjournal.com. 

Finding solutions to reducing teen stress


Every weekday at around 6:30 a.m., Henry Muhlheim hits the snooze button a few times before getting up and driving from Hancock Park to Harvard-Westlake School, one of the country’s top private high schools.

The 17-year-old junior then winds his way through a grueling schedule of seven classes: Middle East studies, AP U.S. history, AP physics, calculus honors, English honors, lunch, design & data structures honors and AP Chinese. Most days of the week, he attends swim practice for a few hours after school, then works on homework until midnight or so. On Sunday mornings, he’s an assistant teacher at Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills.

One night a week, Muhlheim volunteers at Teen Line, a teen-crisis hotline run by Cedars-Sinai, where he offers help on “everything from, ‘my parents don’t understand, my girlfriend broke up with me,’ to things like, ‘I’m dealing with suicide and rape and child abuse,’ ” Muhlheim said. Often, though, teens talk about their stress related to college applications and social relationships.

“With classes and extracurriculars and stuff gearing up toward college, it’s getting crazy,” Muhlheim said.

For 16-year-old junior Ella Swimmer, life is equally complicated. Her day starts at 7:30 a.m. and often ends at 2 a.m. During that time, she takes classes at Santa Monica High School, goes to dance rehearsals, does her homework and helps her younger siblings with their homework. She’s also co-president of her synagogue youth group, Santa Monica Reform Temple Youth, and participates in other Jewish activities for teens.

“I’m constantly stressed out, constantly trying to, like, think hours and days in advance of how I’ll manage my time, how I’ll have time to eat and sleep in between all the homework and activities,” she said.

Adolescence has always been a challenging time of life. School, social obligations and hormones all make it especially hard to navigate. But some Jewish educators and clergy members have become worried that parents and teachers have reached a breaking point of piling on to kids’ lives.

“Most synagogues are ignoring that problem,” said Isa Aron, a professor of Jewish education at the Rhea Hirsch School of Education of

A L’Dor v’Dor ordination


At Lag b’Omer, a holiday traditionally observed with bonfires, Los Angeles’ Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR), set off a few sparks of its own. 

At graduation and ordination ceremonies held at University Synagogue in Los Angeles and Temple Emanuel in Beverly Hills, generational torches were passed, and a call went out for new fires to be lit.

Two of the college’s leaders, Rabbi Richard Levy, who received a Certificate of Recognition and was the ordination speaker, and Steven Windmueller, who received a doctorate in Humane Letters, honoris causa, each had recently announced retirements, and two of the newly ordained rabbis from a class of 13, Yonaton (Yoni) Regev and Micah Ellenson, became the next generation in their respective families to enter the life of rabbinics. 

“You who are being ordained — delight! You who have worked and sacrificed and prayed that they might be ordained — rejoice!” Levy said as he began his address to the incoming rabbis. 

For Ellenson, in particular, there was a group of teachers joining in the rejoicing. “My dad and stepmom are rabbis,” said Ellenson whose mother, Lynn Hanson, is a retired middle- and high-school teacher.  

At the ceremony, creating the sense of a torch-passing, Rabbi Jackie Ellenson, Micah’s stepmother, presented him, while his father, Rabbi David Ellenson, who recently retired as president of HUC-JIR, ordained him.

For Ellenson, the path to this day was not a direct one. 

“I did not know I always wanted to be a rabbi,” Ellenson said. However, he was quick to point out that rabbinics “is not a second career. This is a continuation of my career path,” he said. 

After college, he worked at Nickelodeon in film and education, but eventually realized that he was looking for something else. He enrolled in graduate school at what was then the University of Judaism (Now American Jewish University) and graduated in 2005 with a master’s degree in education, then started in the rabbinic program.  

Although he grew up attending the Conservative Temple Beth Am, he gradually realized that he “felt a closer kinship to Reform Judaism” and switched to HUC-JIR’s rabbinic program, said Ellenson, who will become director of congregational learning at Temple De Hirsch-Sinai in Seattle. 

“To be a teacher is first and foremost. … [Being] a rabbi allows me to teach,” said Ellenson, who for 12 years, including his rabbinic internship, was a youth director at Stephen S. Wise Temple. It was also there that he met his wife, Sara Ellenson. 

As far as acclimating himself to Seattle, Ellenson said he can adapt to the Seahawks “without any dissonance,” despite being a lifelong Dodgers and Lakers fan. 

Also ordained was Yoni Regev, another older student who represented a passing down of Torah sparks.  

Regev, who was born in Jerusalem, is the son of Rabbi Uri Regev, an Israeli Reform rabbi and lawyer who formerly was director of the Reform movement’s political voice in Israel, the Israel Religious Action Center. “He was never a congregational rabbi,” said the younger Regev, who will be assistant rabbi at Temple Sinai in Oakland.

Like Ellenson, being a rabbi was not the younger Regev’s first calling. 

Originally interested in pursuing a career in singing, Regev studied music at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. “He has a wonderful singing voice,” said Ellenson, who has been a friend of Regev’s since before rabbinical school. 

“I thought I was going to cantorial school,” said Regev, who decided instead that “the rabbinic track was the right direction. I could be a singing rabbi,” he said.

“I grew up in a world where rabbinic work was a reality of life … values in Judaism were expressed in real-life terms,” said Regev, whose father has been engaged with advancing civil and religious rights for Jews in Israel and monitoring human rights in the occupied territories.

Regev felt that becoming a congregational rabbi would allow him to express and teach many of Judaism’s’ “important values” at the grass-roots level. “It’s where the real questions happen,” he said.

“Our fathers are very close friends,” Regev said. David Ellenson, “signed our ketubah as one of our witnesses,” added Regev, who is married to Lara Pullan Regev, an HUC-JIR rabbinic student who will be ordained next year.

Having lived in Israel and served in the Israel Defense Forces, Regev believes he can “speak to the realities of the Israeli experience” and “is open to dialogue on the role of Israel in American Jewish life.”

According to Windmueller, who is retiring from his faculty position at HUC-JIR, such openness will be what is called for in the future environment of organized Judaism.

A former dean of the HUC-JIR Los Angeles campus and former director of HUC-JIR’s School of Jewish Communal Service, he has written and lectured extensively on the changes in the American-Jewish community. He has written that the Jewish community is currently in the midst of the “third American Jewish Revolution,” where institutional life has been “moving from the parochial to the global.”

 In an interview, he urged the new rabbis to “look beyond your borders,” have a “willingness to experiment with alternative ventures” and to “go outside the Jewish community” to look at “nonprofits and business for new tools.”

Levy, who began his career in Los Angeles as an assistant rabbi at Leo Baeck Temple and became director of UCLA Hillel in 1968, has observed recent changes as well.

Levy knew from the age of 13 that he wanted to be a rabbi, and he eventually rose to become president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, and then director of the School of Rabbinic Studies at the HUC’s Los Angeles campus. “Lay people have wanted to deepen their own spiritual lives, and we need to help them do that,” he said.

After retiring as the rabbi of the campus synagogue and director of spiritual growth, and lecturer on Judaic studies, Levy plans to continue teaching and davening with the students on the HUC-JIR campus.

At the ordination, speaking with passion, Levy sought to fire up the class of new rabbis: “Be bold. Act with humility — but act boldly.  Love boldly,” he said. “Do God’s commands boldly. Do justice boldly. And if you do, if you speak the beautiful words God has taught us out of love, and if you act with courage and sensitivity and conviction, you will lead this people and this movement into the Promised Land,” he said.

“Enjoy this day, rabbanei segulah, precious rabbis—and may God light a bonfire in each one of your hearts,” he said.

Rabbi Richard Levy: Los Angeles Ordination Speaker 5774/2014 from HUC-JIR on Vimeo.

Rabbi David Ellenson: Bringing heart and old-school soul to academia


An Orthodox upbringing, no fundraising experience, and, by all accounts, a tendency to virtually inhabit the lives of 19th century Jewish philosophers, Rabbi David Ellenson was not who you might have expected to become president of a major institution of Jewish higher learning like the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR).

But in 2001, Ellenson was indeed selected to lead the Reform seminary, with its campuses in Cincinnati, Los Angeles, New York and Jerusalem.

“He was not a numbers-cruncher,” Steven Windmueller, Rabbi Alfred Gottschalk Emeritus Professor of Jewish Communal Service at HUC-JIR, said of Ellenson, who officially stepped down from his post as president to become chancellor on Jan. 1 and will be celebrated in Los Angeles in a gala at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel on Feb. 9. “Everything was built around his warm, friendly style,” Windmueller said.

“He’s a great schmoozer. He can talk to people about anything,” said Rabbi Karen Fox of Wilshire Boulevard Temple, who attended rabbinic school with Ellenson and remains a close personal friend.

“I like people very much,” admitted Ellenson, who said he operates in a nonhierarchical way and that his relationships with people “always remain of primary import.”

Born in Brookline, Mass., in 1947, David Ellenson grew up in Newport News, Va., where, according to Windmueller, he saw firsthand the “sense of commitment” of the Jewish professionals at the local JCC.

In 1969, Ellenson received his bachelor’s degree from the College of William and Mary; he was ordained at HUC-JIR and received his doctorate from Columbia University. Fox recalls that as a student at HUC-JIR, Ellenson didn’t necessarily need to prepare. “The rest of us are breaking our teeth, and he could breeze on in,” Fox said.

[Rabbi Ellenson's daughter: He's Abba to me]

A member of HUC-JIR’s faculty since 1979, Ellenson worked his way up from lecturer to becoming a professor of Jewish religious thought. From 1981-97, he was also the director of the Jerome H. Louchheim School of Judaic Studies at the L.A. campus.

With four campuses in three time zones, Ellenson’s term was a peripatetic one. “I was on the road 150 to 200 days a year during my service as president,” said Ellenson. 

To digitally unite the four campuses, beginning around 2010, Ellenson found funding to create a system of “electronic classrooms,” where “students and teachers on all our campuses can be together,” he said.

During his tenure, however, keeping the four-campus system standing — whether with mortar or circuit boards — was not always easy.

The financial crisis of 2008-9, according to Ellenson, saw HUC-JIR facing a $10 million deficit out of a budget of $38 million. As reported in the Los Angeles Times in a letter Ellenson sent to the college community, he warned that the institution was in “the most challenging financial position it has faced in its history — even more so than during the Depression.”

“We were considering the closing of a campus, perhaps even two,” he said.

The deliberations over which campus, or campuses, to close were complex, and the fact that Ellenson had lived and worked in Los Angeles for 23 years did not make matters easier.

“My two oldest children went to USC, and our children attended Pressman Academy, Emmanuel Community Day School and Sinai Akiba,” he said. While living in Los Angeles, he also attended the Reform Leo Beck Temple, as well as the Conservative Temple Beth Am’s Library Minyan.

With letters and e-mails pouring in — Windmueller estimates there may have been as many as 10,000, each making a case against the closing of their own campus — the pressure for a decision grew. “They struggled with 25 scenarios,” said Windmueller, who served as dean of the Los Angeles campus during that period. “He knew he needed to make cuts. But he refused to sacrifice his relationships for policy.”

Ellenson and HUC-JIR’s board of governors soon sought other remedies, creating “significant economies [in] how we were going to administer the school,” including selling properties that were no long needed and “engaging in vigorous fundraising,” he said.

“The college today has a completely balanced budget,” Ellenson said with some pride. “In 2009, our endowment was $82 million, and it is over $200 million today.”

“I had never engaged in fundraising or administration in any significant way prior to being president,” said Ellenson, who related that a good day would be when someone called call and told him they “were about to contribute a seven-figure gift.”

Windmueller said Ellenson’s longtime relationships were essential to saving the school. He “had all these relationships, and he was able to turn them into valuable resources.”

Now the school is not only on solid ground, but is also growing to ordain progressive rabbis within Israel. “Our Jerusalem program has expanded, and we will soon be approaching more than 100 Israeli Reform Rabbis,” Ellenson said. 

Also during his tenure, more women have been added to the faculty. When he started, only seven of the 55 members of the board of governors were women; that number has now reached almost at 40 percent, Ellenson said.

As to why the school, unlike other parochial colleges, has no sports teams, Ellenson responded, more than half-jokingly, that it has been his “great disappointment,” and that as a precondition for an agreement of cooperation with nearby NCAA powerhouse Xavier University in Cincinnati, he’d had to promise that HUC-JIR would never field a basketball team.

As the college’s new chancellor, Ellenson will be able to return to the classroom, where previously he had introduced new generations of students to Jewish thinkers such as Moses Mendelssohn and Franz Rosenzweig. “There are certain Jewish figures who live inside of David,” Windmueller said of Ellenson.

In the 1980s, Rabbi Steven Silver, now of Temple Menorah in Redondo Beach, was a student of Ellenson’s in the college’s rabbinic program on the L.A. campus.

“Rabbi Ellenson was talking about Rabbi Leo Baeck,” said Silver, speaking of the German scholar and community leader who in 1943 was deported to the Theresienstadt concentration camp. As Ellenson told the story, he became “emotionally moved,” Silver recalled.

“When he talked about how Baeck was given the job of draining the camp latrines, his lips began to quiver,” Silver said. By the end of the story — Baeck survived — “Ellenson was weeping, as well as the rest of the class,” Silver said.

“I learned that intellectual history is not just about ideas, but the triumph of the Jewish spirit — in dark and painful times,” said Silver.

“This is not his job,” Wilshire Boulevard Temple’s Fox said of her longtime friend. “It’s his heart and soul.”

Rabbi David Ellenson is Abba to me


On a Sunday evening last December I sat with my father, Rabbi David Ellenson — or, as my siblings and I call him, Abba — at a diner in the heart of downtown Los Angeles. Weeks away from his official retirement as president of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR), evening descended while the holiday lights burned brightly outside. 

As I listened to him speak, I could see my father’s beard was now more white than brown. He speculated on what his life might be like after retirement. Now 66, his time would be his own again. After a career devoted to the beating of Reform Judaism’s heart, his own heart’s desires were once again eligible for consideration. The irony became quickly apparent: the two heartbeats, it turned out, were not that different. 

My father’s entire adult life has been spent enthralled by the promise, community and intellectual calling of liberal Judaism. Abba has been blessed to spend his professional life living out his personal passion for the Jewish people. It has brought him a great deal of fulfillment and recognition, but that has never been what matters to him. Both a rabbi and an academic, his career at HUC-JIR allowed him to lead a Jewish seminary while still being a scholar who got excited seeing his work cited in an academic colleague’s footnote.

If my father is beloved by many of the people who encounter his warmth, knowledge and humor, it’s because he is in love with the Jewish people — in spite of their complexity, but probably also because of it. That love causes him to radiate with a warm glow that invites others toward him. Abba’s sincere curiosity encompasses both people and ideas in equal measure, but its focus is almost always on am Yisra’el. It is not just a religious devotion, per se, but a deep tribalism that engages his heart and mind and motivates his life’s work. 

[Related: Bringing heart and old-school soul to academia]

The evening in downtown L.A. came at the end of another typical weekend in my father’s atypical life. That afternoon he performed a wedding for a lesbian couple who had been together for 31 years and were finally able to legally marry. As my father pronounced them spouses beneath the chuppah, he had tears in his eyes and spoke about how the tide of history moves towards justice, paraphrasing Martin Luther King Jr. A day before, he had been honored at the Union of Reform Judaism Biennial in San Diego, a gathering of more than 5,000 people, where he was embraced by his moppet of a granddaughter, Lily, as everyone sang to him. Abba also blessed the incoming president of HUC-JIR, Rabbi Aaron D. Panken — again, with tears in his eyes — moving many of those present to tears as well.

The intimacies of family life do not always lend themselves to experiencing my father the way others see him, and I have been grateful to witness these recent moments of loving public recognition. I share that gratitude with my entire family, especially my brothers and sisters: Micah, Hannah, Nomi and Rafi. A half-minyan of children is a contribution to Jewish peoplehood in and of itself, but to see his work reflected in the lives of the many people he has taught, officiated for and befriended is a gift. As my siblings and I know — as does every rabbi’s child — to love our father is to share him with a wider world.

He grew up an Orthodox Jew in Newport News, Va. His father, Sam, was the son of Ukrainian immigrants who worked in the shipyards. Sam went on to graduate from Harvard Law School. Abba’s mother, Rosalind, a woman whose career began with involvement in Hadassah, went on to manage the social services for the city of Hampton, Va. Neither probably ever imagined their eldest son would become a leader of Reform Jewry, but I am sure they would have been very proud had they lived to see it.

My father’s childhood in the South of the 1950s and ’60s, along with those of his sister Judy and brother Jimmy, took place during a time where he knew, as a Jew, that he was “other.” While popular as a child — he was student body president of Newport News High School in 1965 and played basketball, for which he retains a passion to this day — he also recalls not being allowed to visit the country clubs of his gentile friends as their guest.

My father’s appeal, I’ve often thought, stems from a Southerner’s charm matched with a Northeasterner’s intellectual credentials. As a Jewish Southerner, Abba learned to love not only Judaism from an early age, but also American history and the ideals of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Perhaps that is why the personal freedom and intellectual adaptability of Reform Judaism fit him so well.

Growing up in the segregated South, he witnessed firsthand the unfolding of the civil rights movement, which gave him a formative example in embracing his own Jewishness with pride years later when he came to New York to pursue his graduate studies in the 1970s. Earning his rabbinical degree and doctorate, at HUC-JIR and Columbia University respectively, Abba was a member of the Upper West Side Chavurah, a period he has described as finding his intellectual and spiritual home in the world.

At Columbia he focused on Esriel Hildesheimer, a 19th century rabbi and scholar who founded a seminary in Berlin that attempted to reconcile Orthodoxy and modernity. I’ve often thought Hildesheimer appealed to my father because he echoed Abba’s own attempts to reconcile his Southern upbringing with his Judaism.

For my father, the central question that animates his passions is how to lead a meaningful Jewish life in a modern world filled with infinite choices, and how those decisions have been navigated in the past, present and future. While it is a question that has never taken root in my heart the way it has for my father, conversations with him have made me appreciate the art of questioning, and shown me that not always knowing the answer is a driving factor in the Jewish consciousness. 

As I write this in late January, I am in Berlin. The city is quiet under a blanket of thick white snow, and today happens to be International Holocaust Remembrance Day. Adass Jisroel, the Berlin synagogue that Hildesheimer — the subject of my father’s scholarship — founded in 1869 still operates today. As I wandered through the streets to see what is left of the places Hildesheimer once walked, in the neighborhood known as Mitte, I thought of my father and how Judaism is wide enough and strong enough to hold the center, even when its branches bow from the weight of discord. Because of my father, I have faith that the roots will sustain me, even with my questions, and the tree will blossom. I know I am not the only one to feel that way because of my father and his work. We are lucky. Our Jewish world is a wider one because of his open mind and heart. 

In his work as president, I have seen my father ordain hundreds of rabbis. This May, he will ordain my brother Micah. Micah is the first, and may be the only one, among us children to follow in our father’s rabbinic footsteps. I have no doubt that Micah’s ordination will be the most meaningful of all those my father has performed, but with each one he always offers a special moment, both private and public, as he stands before the congregation and whispers a personal blessing to each newly minted rabbi.

Although he has done this countless times, it is always a genuinely beautiful moment. For me, it recalls the Shabbat table at our home, where Abba blessed us every week. That magical moment is to this day my favorite part of being a member of a Jewish family — a pause in the chaos of life that recognizes connection, love and gratitude, and wishes each child peace.

As my father embarks on this new chapter of his life, I join with our entire family—immediate and extended, his colleagues and countless friends, each of whom he makes feel that they uniquely are the most special one of all — to offer our own blessing to him in the next chapter of his life. 

May the happiness and insight he has brought so many be returned to him with abundance, and may he be granted peace.

 


Writer Ruth Andrew Ellenson and her father won simultaneous National Jewish Book Awards in 2005 for their respective books, “The Modern Jewish Girl’s Guide to Guilt” (Plume) and “After Emancipation: Jewish Religious Responses to Modernity” (Hebrew Union College Press). 

B’nai Mitzvah revolution


At Temple Kol Tikvah in Woodland Hills, the Torah has left the building — not permanently, but as part of a new ritual of sending the holy scroll home with a child the night before his or her bar or bat mitzvah. 

The Reform congregation’s Rabbi Jonathan Hanish said the experiences have been transformational — even calming. One child who hadn’t slept in a week due to anxiety reportedly slept like a baby with the Torah at home.

What sparked this new ritual? The B’nai Mitzvah Revolution (BMR), a national project to change b’nai mitzvah culture and encourage youth to stay engaged in synagogue even after these coming-of-age ceremonies. Temple Kol Tikvah is one of 10 local congregations taking part in the initiative by the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) and Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR).

Two local participants — Stephen S. Wise Temple and Temple Isaiah — are among 13 pilot synagogues nationwide that began work in November 2012. Together with the other local shuls, with support from The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, they have formed a separate L.A. cohort. The BMR was the subject of discussion at the URJ’s Dec. 11-15 Biennial in San Diego.

Isa Aron, BMR co-director and professor of Jewish education at HUC-JIR in Los Angeles, said the project spans a wide range of possible goals, outcomes and timelines, and that it will take a few years to assess results. 

“For some, success equals increased engagement of b’nai mitzvah students and their families; for others, a higher percentage of retention after bar or bat mitzvah; for others, a greater sense of community; and for some, a mixture of all of these, and possibly others,” Aron said.

From structural overhauls of their religious school system to tweaks in the b’nai mitzvah ceremonies, each synagogue hopes the changes will pay big dividends. Here are some of the changes under consideration.

In late October, IKAR, an independent L.A. congregation, began offering a pilot program of parenting classes. By engaging parents, the synagogue hopes to help foster a sense of community at the family level that will bleed over into the children’s lives. “These sessions will cover topics such as teaching teens responsibility and consequences, understanding normal teenage self-centeredness and allowing teens the space to fix their own problems, all presented through a Jewish lens,” said Rabbi Rebecca Rosenthal, IKAR’s education director.  

Kehillat Israel, a Reconstructionist synagogue in Pacific Palisades, wants to make sure there are opportunities for younger students to learn about its high school programs, interact with high school kids and meet other families — thereby creating connections that will make them want to stay involved after their bar or bat mitzvah. “The ultimate goal is to have students participate in a ‘Mitzvah Masters’ program at the high school level, which helps them explore their spirituality, study Judaic content and understand what it means to live in a caring community while developing self-esteem,” said Rabbi Carrie Vogel, Kehillat Israel’s assistant director of youth and family education. 

The plan at Stephen S. Wise Temple is to embed the requirement for b’nai mitzvah projects into the elementary school and religious school curriculum, according to Ariana West, communications director for the Reform congregation in Bel Air. The approach to Jewish service learning will include learning about a social issue and the Jewish response, a hands-on experience and a reflection session.

Temple Akiba in Culver City is implementing an annual daylong retreat for parents, staff, students, teachers and others that is focused on looking at the meaning of b’nai mitzvah from various viewpoints. The first retreat was held on Nov. 23 at Camp Max Straus in Glendale, and will include follow-up throughout the year, said Randee Bishoff, religious education director at the Reform synagogue.

Temple Aliyah, a Conservative congregation in Woodland Hills, is using the BMR process to address the issue of students not focusing enough on the meaning of their parasha (Torah portion). Starting this winter, sixth-grade students will learn to read the parasha together with their families prior to joining an adult study group. “We have begun with baby steps toward getting families to participate with their children in this process, while making it more interesting for the kids as well,” explained Rabbi Adam Schaffer, Temple Aliyah’s religious school director.

Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills, a Reform congregation, wants to engage children and their families in the b’nai mitzvah process at an earlier age. “We are looking to create community-building and learning opportunities for parents as early as when their children are in the fourth grade, when they first receive their bar mitzvah date, and are actually beginning to think about b’nai mitzvah,” Temple Emanuel’s Cantor Yonah Kliger said.

In West Los Angeles, the Reform Temple Isaiah’s religious school started offering different tracks — religious immersion or prayer, for example — that students can take with the hope of making the process more interesting to them. “We want to start thinking about [b’nai mitzvah] in third grade, and not just as a ceremony that is an ‘end’ but as growth that is just one stage in a much longer process,” said Hannah Rubin-Schlansky, director of informal education and coordinator of Temple Isaiah’s BMR team.

At Temple Israel of Hollywood, a Reform congregation, fifth-graders will go through a unit to develop their family tree, using genealogy Web sites, seeking out documents and interviewing as much of their family as possible. “Passing the Torah from our tradition through the generations will now be combined with passing the Torah of our students’ individual family traditions. Its purpose is not only to discover our students’ unique family histories, but to link that affective experience with the Jewish tradition
as a whole,” Temple Israel’s Rabbi John Rosove said.

Temple Kol Tikvah, in addition to sending a Torah home with b’nai mitzvah students, will ask youth to work together on mitzvah projects. “Each month, we are offering a different tikkun olam opportunity to our sixth- through 12th-graders. Once our pre-[b’nai mitzvah] students have done five projects, they have fulfilled their tikkun olam requirement,” said Hanish, using the Hebrew phrase that means “repairing the world.” Other changes being discussed are life-skills classes that would teach such things through a Jewish lens.

At the Encino Conservative congregation Valley Beth Shalom, the focus is on afternoon b’nai mitzvah services, said Cantor Phil Baron. In order to make them more communal, students will be invited to read their Torah portions in another service the following week, and a member of the board of directors will attend to present the synagogue’s gifts.

For more information about B’nai Mitzvah Revolution, please visit 

Jewish art spans city with ‘Sacred Words, Sacred Texts’


The Jewish art scene in Los Angeles is a small but vibrant community that spans generations, styles, and the full length and breadth of the city itself. Now, for the first time, three of L.A.’s preeminent Jewish institutions — Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR), University of Southern California Hillel and American Jewish University (AJU) — have teamed up to produce a collaborative exhibition that stretches across three venues and features more than a dozen local artists. 

“Sacred Words, Sacred Texts,” which officially opened Oct. 6 with a reception at AJU, is an exhibition that celebrates Jews as a People of the Book: Torah, Talmud, Midrash and sacred poetry are all explored through various media by more than a dozen Jewish artists from the L.A. area. It was curated by Anne Hromadka, Sara Cannon and Georgia Freedman-Harvey.

A second reception — this time beginning at HUC-JIR and spilling over to the nearby USC Hillel — took place on Oct. 13, featuring a wide range of styles and forms, from a very traditional, literal sculpted Torah by Soraya Sarah Nazarian, to Will Deutsch’s instantly recognizable drawings, to a video installation by Jessica Shokrian featuring accompanying spices that guests were invited to sniff in a sort of avant garde Smell-O-Vision.

Hromadka said that one of her main motivations for the exhibition was to ask the question, “How are Jewish artists thinking of ourselves as keepers of the book?” 

She continued: “In thinking of ‘Sacred Words,’ I wanted to think about not just the words that we speak to each other, but what are some of the holiest words ever spoken in our tradition? And those are often the words spoken from God to us.”

Hromadka highlighted the work of artist Andi Arnovitz, a beautifully constructed sculpture made of Hebrew text featuring colorful flourishes that depict the battle between the houses of Hillel and Shammai, the circa first century BCE rabbis whose heated debates helped shape much of religious Jewish law and custom.

“The scrolls that make up the house are actually copies of pages from the Talmud,” Hromadka said.

She also spoke about a piece by Iranian artist Krista Nassi, who immigrated to the United States in 2006 after living in Iran post-revolution. The piece, a bold painting featuring sharp contrasts between darkness and light, and the text of the Shema, was apparently a personal one for Nassi. 

“She lived in Iran during the Iran-Iraq war,” Hromadka said. “Whenever there was shelling … her family would gather in one space in the house … and they would huddle. And what were the words they would say to comfort themselves? The Shema.”

Among those in attendance were participating artists Melinda Smith Altshuler and Isaac Brynjegard-Bialik. Altshuler, speaking briefly, highlighted her use of found objects in her work, which she credited to her father being in the scrap metal business when she grew up. He’d bring home “wonders” that she couldn’t help but love. Altshuler described her work, which included a piece that made use of old record sleeves, as being “like the anti-text, because they really have to do with addressing recording, which is what the written word is also, but with visual materials.”

Brynjegard-Bialik went into more depth about what the concept behind “Sacred Words, Sacred Texts” means to him. 

“What I’m trying to do is tell stories,” he said. “I’m very much into our narratives, our stories as a people. Most of my work is informed by biblical stories. And I always say my work starts with text. Maybe it’s a portion from the Bible, maybe it’s something from Talmud, maybe it’s a myth, as with the golem story.”

Brynjegard-Bialik’s beautiful pieces, which weave in images from comic books to create mythic takes on Torah and the Jewish experience, breathe new life into the often tired art of paper cutting. 

“It’s all about revisiting these texts, revisiting these stories, revisiting those things that inform us as a people, and trying to make sense of them,” he said. “The text becomes ours to own and to struggle with. What I try and do is put that struggle on the page.”

At USC Hillel, a jazz quartet played while guests, most of whom made the short walk from HUC, looked at more work by Brynjegard-Bialik, along with Hillel-specific artists like the appropriately named Hillel Smith and Carol Es. 

This display has more of a youth-oriented feel, between the comic book-influenced work of Brynjegard-Bialik, Smith’s selections — which ranged from a pop art T-shirt to colorful abstract prints — and Es’ warped, trippy paintings.

Among the artists represented at AJU are Corrie Siegel, whose map of Los Angeles was used as the artwork for the exhibition’s poster, and philanthropist Peachy Levy, whose generous gifts to many Jewish institutions, particularly camps, have helped fund arts programming for countless children over the years. 

Whichever location art lovers visit, they are guaranteed to see a wide cross-section of Jewish art from Los Angeles, a collection that fittingly captures the many artistic voices that make up our community, and asks powerful questions. The exhibition at all three institutions will continue through mid-December.

Uri Herscher’s and the Skirball Cultural Center: ‘Gratitude, gratitude, gratitude’


One day in early March 1954, Uri Herscher, just 12 at the time, ran away from his parents. His father, Joseph, a cabinetmaker, and mother, Lucy, a laundress, were having trouble making ends meet living in Israel. Together with Uri and his younger brother, Eli, they were meant to leave from Haifa the next morning to travel to the United States. There, the family would find a new home in San Jose, Calif., a thriving middle-class community with very few Jews, where Joseph’s sister had already set down roots.

But young Uri didn’t want to leave. In his short life, he had watched the creation of the Jewish state realize a long-held dream for the Jewish people, and especially those who had escaped the Shoah like his German-refugee parents. He felt tied to the land, and because of the loss in the Holocaust of all his grandparents and many other family members, he looked forward to joining the Israel Defense Forces and ensuring his country’s future.

America meant nothing to the young sabra. 

Eventually, however, the boy was found, and he dutifully boarded the cargo ship and set out on 19 days of traveling rough seas to the United States. Young Uri even celebrated his bar mitzvah onboard the rocking vessel — immediately feeding his celebratory chocolate cake to the fishes. It was only when the boat arrived in New York’s harbor at dawn on March 24, 1954, that the waters finally calmed, and with that calm came a new beginning and a vision that has defined Uri Herscher’s life: The captain woke everyone aboard to see the welcoming figure of the Statue of Liberty.

Had the runaway stayed in the Holy Land, not only would his own life have turned out radically different, but also American Jewry’s cultural landscape would not be what it is today.

“That first impression was a lasting impression,” Herscher, now 72, said — with obvious understatement. 

Herscher sat for a series of extensive interviews in anticipation of the official opening of the final phase of the 15-acre campus of the Skirball Cultural Center. Nearly 18 years after an inaugural gathering on the Sepulveda Pass site for the Skirball’s 1,500 founding donors, the opening of a vast new conference center and social hall will be celebrated with a gala on Oct. 19. The new building marks the first time the Skirball’s founding president and chief executive officer has allowed his family name to be permanently inscribed onto what he has built, as it is on the new Herscher Hall and Guerin Pavilion. Three days later, on Oct. 22, the exhibition “Global Citizen: The Architecture of Moshe Safdie” opens, a retrospective of the work of the man who designed and built the entire Skirball Center complex, a dear friend and collaborator with Herscher for more than three decades. 

Herscher’s Skirball Cultural Center — which intentionally is sited approximately equidistant from the heavily Jewish West Los Angeles and the equally so San Fernando Valley — is all about honoring, celebrating and embracing others. The institution was first conceived in 1981 as an extension of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR), from which it is now fully independent, and, like Herscher, the Skirball is fundamentally Jewish but seeks to fulfill an inclusive mission of welcoming, serving and educating all populations, especially immigrants like Herscher — remembering that Jews, too, were once the newcomers in this land. 


Uri Herscher outside the new Herscher Hall and Guerin Pavilion at the Skirball Cultural Center. © 2013 Loretta Ayeroff

“The Skirball is an institution that believes our people should thank America and give back to it,” Herscher said. “And when I say give back, I don’t mean to Jews alone. The Skirball is embracive. We like to find ways to welcome those who may feel at the beginning as strangers to this Jewish institution, but I think that before they leave, they no longer feel so. And usually you feel good if somehow you’ve identified your own story within the story you are told — a story that may have a Jewish source but is fundamentally a humane one.”

In conversation, Herscher constantly highlights the accomplishments of staff, donors and friends, while on public occasions he more often stays on the sidelines. At a special dinner before a summer concert, he mixed comfortably with an array of friends — including Jeffrey Rudolph, president and CEO of the California Science Center, foundation heads, attorneys, bankers and others. He made a brief thank-you speech at the dinner, but then let Mia Cariño, the Skirball’s vice president for communications and marketing, introduce the performers before the larger audience. Likewise, at a talk at the Skirball by his longtime friend and Skirball consultant Marty Sklar, founder and leader of the Walt Disney Co.’s Imagineers — who helped create Disney’s 11 theme parks— Herscher watched from the balcony as Jordan Peimer, the Skirball’s vice president and director of programs, introduced Sklar and later led a question-and-answer session.

Yet if Herscher doesn’t seek the limelight, in conversation he is both warm and deliberate, always focused on the matter at hand — looking straight into his listener’s eyes, choosing his words carefully and frequently overcome with emotion. It is not unusual for Herscher to choke up as he talks of the Skirball’s donors, or the staff who have helped realize his vision. A rabbi and historian by training, Herscher also frequently cites Jewish texts and quotes Torah. 

But, he made clear, he is also pragmatic: “I love concepts — share a concept with me, and you’ll enlighten me, and you’ll enrich me. The next step, though, is, how does it apply and to whom?” 

It is no surprise, therefore, that Herscher’s commitment to inclusion can be seen throughout the Skirball’s galleries and in all its programs. It can also be seen in the culture of intentional kindness displayed by each employee toward visitors, from the ticket takers at the museum’s entrance, to the instructors in the Noah’s Ark interactive galleries, where active play teaches biblical lessons to children and parents alike. 

Re-creating Herscher’s pivotal childhood memory, a two-thirds-scale replica of the actual Statue of Liberty’s hand-held torch stands at the heart of the museum’s permanent collection, amid an exhibit about Jewish immigrants’ arrival in the United States in the early 20th century that also includes vintage luggage holding period clothing, photos of swarms of new arrivals on American shores, a film about the waves of immigration to the United States and more. This particular gallery, like so many of them, personifies the core of what the Skirball is about — that Jews are just one of many groups who came here to share in the opportunities that America affords. The act of immigration is a key American experience, and those who experience it must be made to feel welcome.

“If you think about our history and the worst of times, it had to do with living in countries where no one felt safe,” Herscher said, repeating his message in many different ways throughout our conversations. At the Skirball, he said, “We wanted very much to create a place that was not cruel, where people felt safe, where people’s voices were not stilled. Where the underserved and the poor — especially the children in this town — can come.”

If the success of that dream can be quantified, the numbers tell the story: Since the campus’ public opening in 1996, the Skirball has had some 6 million visitors — 280,000 of them in the inaugural year, far surpassing the original first-year projection of 60,000. Nowadays, about 600,000 people pass through the Skirball annually, coming for exhibitions, lectures, plays and world-music concerts in the indoor and outdoor venues, to dine in the restaurant, to shop in the Judaica store and gift shop and to celebrate life’s most precious moments with weddings, b’nai mitzvah and other events. 


Noah’s Ark, which opened at the Skirball in 2007, welcomes children and families to visit a floor-to-ceiling wooden ark, filled with hundreds of handcrafted animals.

And the Skirball organization, with its 169 full-time staff and some 200 volunteers, is also a feat of Herscher’s leadership and love of efficiency, as his board members attest, running on an $18 million annual operating budget, half of which comes from the center’s $150 million endowment; another 35 percent from income from annual memberships, admissions, food services and event hosting; and just 15 percent — between $2 million and $2.5 million — raised each year from various donors and other sources. The new Herscher-Guerin building itself cost $99 million, including for the halls, courtyards, gardens and a new three-subterranean-floor garage to hold 700 cars. (The Skirball now has 1,100 parking slots.) 

Notably, all these vast sums of money already have been accounted for. The Skirball runs on a no-debt policy.

And Herscher can be particular about where the money comes from: Even having raised hundreds of millions of dollars, Herscher said he has on several occasions turned away or returned donations that came with strings attached. “About $2.5 million to $3 million, I gave back over a period of 20 years, in different amounts — $250,000, in one case,” Herscher said. “The main reason for declining them is that some donors are actually consumers. And I didn’t want to bequeath my successor strings that I was responsible for.” 

He has no regrets about money lost, he says, “And when they ask me — ‘Uri, that’s a lot of money that you just sent me back,’ I say, ‘Honestly, I was born with a nervous stomach, and I want to have joy in creating this institution.’ ”

He also goes against the Los Angeles deep-pocket stereotype and has generally steered clear of Hollywood. 

“You can knock on 10 doors in Los Angeles asking for support or funding, and eight may slam the door, but the likelihood is that two will support you,” he said. “Our money really doesn’t come from public personas.”

One example is Art Bilger, an Internet entrepreneur and philanthropist who currently serves as vice chairman of the Skirball’s board of trustees. Bilger became part of the center’s strategic planning committee soon after meeting Herscher in Israel in 1993 — three years before the opening. (He also, along with Herscher, serves on the board of TRIBE Media Corp., parent company of the Jewish Journal.) Bilger cited some of the elements he believes contribute to Herscher’s success: “Personality is key; he has an extraordinary graciousness that goes a long way and a true appreciation of the person he’s dealing with — he’s never just a dollars guy. He values relationships. 

“Another advantage is being the founder,” Bilger added. “That gives you a lot, versus the next guy, who is not the founder and is just an employee.” Moreover, Bilger said, success breeds success: “People like jumping on board of something that’s successful.” 

Plus, and probably most compelling: “The mission resonates.”


The annual Puppet Festival attracts families of all backgrounds to daylong festivities showcasing the arts of puppetry and storytelling.

To illustrate the relationship part, Bilger spoke of how Herscher served as rabbi at the b’nai mitzvah services for all three of the Bilger children — each one in a different venue of the Skirball as the institution expanded over the years. “Let’s put it this way,” Bilger said with a laugh, “he hasn’t walked my dog,” but Herscher is almost that kind of friend.

Indeed, Herscher’s friendships generally are not fleeting. Among the most lasting is with Robert D. Haas, chairman emeritus of Levi Strauss & Co., a supporter of Herscher’s endeavors since they were classmates in the early 1960s at UC Berkeley, when the two men served together as counselors for the still-thriving Cal Camp — originally a camp for underprivileged youth run by UC Berkeley, for which Herscher was founding director while still an undergraduate. 

There’s also Fred Ali, president and CEO of the Weingart Foundation based in Los Angeles, which has donated many millions of unrestricted gifts over the years to the Skirball, supporting the vision of the center because of its emphasis on education and opportunities for the whole community. “We are completely nondenominational in our approach,” Ali said in an interview, but he cited the recent exhibition “Women Hold Up Half the Sky,” which looked at displaced, often abused and disadvantaged women in Third World countries who were overcoming hardship through micro-businesses. “That was a great example of the Skirball’s approach to a very timely issue,” Ali said. “They take very seriously the whole idea of talking about Jewish history within the context of the greater community,” using the Jewish values to explore “a lot of multicultural programming.”

And, added Ali, “Every time I have a conversation with Uri, I feel like I’ve learned something. He’s warm, he’s engaging, and he’s challenging. And he helps me recommit to the work I’m doing.”

Motivated by the Holocaust, moved by hope

If the Israel Herscher knew as a boy was dominated by his parents’ sadness over their tremendous losses from the Holocaust, in San Jose he found a flourishing postwar, middle-class community filled with promise for all his family. To this day, he cites in his bio on the Skirball’s Web site that the predominantly non-Jewish students of his high school elected him student body president. He became a U.S. citizen and went on to UC Berkeley, where he graduated with honors in 1964, with degrees in history and sociology, then meant to go to Boalt Hall, Berkeley’s law school, but got sidetracked on a camping trip of discovery in Europe, an attempt to recover some sense of his history. While he was still camping, the emergent Los Angeles campus of HUC-JIR recruited Herscher to come to its first tiny L.A. campus, on Appian Way in the Hollywood Hills, and Herscher, almost on a whim, accepted. 

It was a fortuitous move, though he never aimed to become a pulpit rabbi — although Herscher’s brother, Eli, is among the most prominent rabbis in Los Angeles, leading the Reform Stephen S. Wise Temple just across the canyon from the Skirball. At HUC-JIR, Uri Herscher found he loved Jewish study and values. And it was during his second year, in giving a sermon about Moses at the school, that he won the Jack and Audrey Skirball Award in homiletics — thereby introducing him to the man who would become his mentor, teacher, foundational donor, supporter and confidant. If Herscher cites any singular philosophy as his touchstone, it is always Jack H. Skirball’s.


Thousands of world-music and Americana fans pack the Skirball’s central courtyard each summer at Sunset Concerts. The 18th season of this free series will take place in 2014.

Born in 1896 in Pennsylvania, Skirball was ordained as a rabbi at Hebrew Union College in 1921 but also did graduate work in philosophy and sociology at the University of Chicago. He served as a pulpit rabbi for less than a decade and then became a pioneer in audiovisual education, including making “Birth of a Baby,” the first film to document a child’s birth. He also produced films, including Alfred Hitchcock’s “Saboteur” (1942) and “Shadow of a Doubt” (1943). Not stopping there, Skirball went on to become a successful real-estate developer. All of this allowed him to become an active philanthropist to the Reform movement, and Skirball was instrumental in the creation of the L.A. campus of HUC-JIR, as well as in establishing the Skirball Museum on that campus and museums on the school’s Cincinnati and Jerusalem campuses.

It was Skirball who first recognized that the collection now housed at the Skirball Cultural Center should get a real home, Herscher points out: “This magnificent collection was in Cincinnati in a basement, and Jack Skirball made a case to the [then-HUC-JIR] president, Nelson Glueck, that it’s a shame to keep it in the basement, and it should be moved into a city that has a larger Jewish population than Cincinnati, and we should have galleries where the objects tell the stories. Jack Skirball was a storyteller — he was a rabbi, he was a moviemaker, everything for him was a story. And he’s right — without stories, there is no civilization.” Skirball’s ideas commingled with Herscher’s quest to create the cultural center: “I see the Skirball as a surrogate storyteller,” Herscher said, adding, “We wouldn’t have a collection if it weren’t for the Hebrew Union collection. We just added to the collection the Americana part, to a collection, which is, basically, ritual objects.”

To understand the relationship among Jack H. Skirball, the man who died in 1985 at 89; Skirball, the place; and Uri Herscher, it’s important to know that the three overlap and intertwine in many ways, with HUC-JIR at the heart of their bond. Herscher not only earned his rabbinic ordination from HUC-JIR, in 1970, he also was awarded his doctorate in American Jewish history by the school in 1973. And, even while a graduate student, he served from 1970 to ’74 as the national dean of admissions for HUC-JIR, and in 1975, at 34, he became executive vice president and dean of faculty for the four-campus HUC-JIR (including Los Angeles, Cincinnati, New York and Jerusalem), a job that he held until 1995, the year before the cultural center opened.

In 1981, Jack Skirball proposed the idea of creating and donating funds from his own pocket to create a museum in Los Angeles, a place where he felt the collection would serve a broader, more diverse audience. This was the seed conversation for what eventually became the Skirball Cultural Center, and, Herscher remembers, it didn’t go over easily. “The debate was: Why Los Angeles? There were board members [55 in all] from all over the country. And what if the project goes awry? What financial burden would be placed on Hebrew Union College?” 

When it didn’t look good, Herscher said, “Jack got up, knowing we might very well lose, and he said, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, I thought it was difficult to earn the money that I’ve earned in my lifetime, but you’ve made it clear that it is even more difficult to give it away.’ ” The resolution passed in a simple majority, with just one vote bringing it over the line, Herscher said.

Initially, the collection was housed on L.A.’s HUC-JIR campus, as Herscher, with the help of Skirball, began the undertaking of finding a separate home. The land they fell in love with in the Sepulveda Pass offered a great location, but the long, narrow property had been used as a landfill, so while it cost $4 million to buy the land, an additional $6 million was needed just to prepare before any ground could be broken, Herscher said. Engineers first had to dig down 70 feet and build caissons to support the building’s foundation. 


From left: Uri Herscher, Jack Skirball and Moshe Safdie stand on the future site of the Skirball Cultural Center in summer 1985. Photo by Bill Aron

Meanwhile, while serving as dean at HUC-JIR, Herscher made another of his lasting and pivotal friendships, with Moshe Safdie, who created Jerusalem HUC-JIR’s campus. The two had much in common: Like Herscher, Safdie is binational — the architect was born in Israel, in 1938, and immigrated with his family to Canada in 1953. Both men are fluent in English and Hebrew, both are committed to working in Israel and the Americas, and, as one-time immigrants, they bonded over the mission of the Skirball Cultural Center. Safdie has designed every aspect of what he calls “a necklace of pavilions,” conceived over three decades and realized over the past 18 years.

In an interview from his Boston offices, Safdie said the two men became so “personally engaged” in the Skirball, to the extent that, at times, “Uri was informing the design process, and I was informing the institution-building process — switching places.” 

As will be revealed in the “Global Citizen” exhibition, Safdie’s projects stretch around the world, but aside from the Skirball buildings, his firm is probably best-known and admired within the Jewish community for re-envisioning Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial museum in Jerusalem. There, however, Safdie said, the building was designed according to a linear narrative, with distinct chapters, and, “the subject matter was dark and defining, even overbearing.” The Skirball, by contrast, “is about joy, nature, the successful story of the Jews in America. It is a celebratory building.”

Like many modernist architects working in L.A., Safdie has made deliberate use of landscaping to enhance the visitor’s experience. Thus, the long trek through the arroyo en route from the parking garage to the grand entrance offers a meditative transition from the experience of driving into the garage to the experience of entering the center.

Safdie describes the new Guerin Pavilion, within its expansive 9,000-square-foot room, as a sukkah, with a slatted wooden ceiling lit by the sky and a full wall of windows that open onto a lush hillside garden. Quite unlike a sukkah, though, it has state-of-the-art kitchen facilities and can accommodate nearly 700 for a banquet, more than 1,000 as a theater and more than 1,800 for a reception. Offering new space not only for the various performance and convening needs of the Skirball, it will also be made available for rentals.

Safdie said Herscher’s input has been integral to the process of creating every element of the campus: “I don’t think that you would have expected Uri to be a person who championed architecture,” he said, noting that major architects have rarely been sought out for Jewish institutional buildings in the United States. But Herscher’s vision has been insightful: “When he tells me something is ‘not just right,’ I look at it again,” Safdie said. 

Perhaps the only undercurrent of concern over the creation of the Skirball that came up in the research for this article embodied a kind of envy: The Skirball’s departure from HUC-JIR has allowed it to flourish, even as the college itself has experienced some hard times. 

Following the economic downturn in 2008, every nonprofit was hurting, and Herscher said there was belt-tightening and a reduction in staff working hours at the Skirball for a time. For its part, HUC-JIR saw some very difficult years, and there was even talk of closing one or more of the campuses — among them the Los Angeles school.

Quietly, at that time, Rabbi David Ellenson, president of HUC-JIR, and his longtime colleague, former boss and friend Uri Herscher came up with a plan that would help restore the economic security of the school and assure the long-term life of the cultural center’s core exhibits.

Until 2011, the land and the collections shown at the Skirball continued to be the property of HUC-JIR, leased to the Skirball Cultural Center, as they had been when Jack Skirball helped finesse the creation of the institution. The Skirball is independently incorporated and all money to build and maintain the Skirball had been independently raised, but Ellenson and Herscher saw an opportunity to “preserve for all time the precious legacy of the Jewish people” that was the artifacts, and to sell the land to the Skirball Center. 

After an appraisal, a figure of $10 million was set for the land, which Herscher raised and the Skirball paid to HUC-JIR. The collection, on the other hand, was virtually gifted for just a single dollar — making “de facto what had been de jure,” Ellenson said. The proviso was that the Cincinnati campus of HUC-HIR could take what objects it wanted to hold onto, and that it would have the right to continue to borrow for educational purposes as desired.

Thus a first $10 million was handed over, but at the same time, there was also a second, equal amount, that Herscher helped procure for HUC-JIR, in the form of a grant from the Skirball Foundation, an entirely separate entity of Jack and Audrey Skirball’s creation, of which Herscher is a trustee. That second donation of $10 million became a naming gift, and now Jack H. Skirball’s name graces the L.A. campus.

Ellenson said that with those two amounts, plus other donations from the foundation, Herscher has been instrumental in helping to bring $53 million to HUC-JIR through the Skirballs’ funds and in their name. The school is once again on solid footing, and Herscher, Ellenson said, “played a very positive role to achieve that fiscal balance today.”

The family man


Uri Herscher (top) and his wife, Myna Herscher (back row, right), surrounded by their immediate family, which includes four sons — Josh Herscher, longtime history teacher and varsity basketball coach at Venice High, who recently became a coach in the USC athletics department (back row, left); film editor Adam Coleite (back row, second from left); Gideon Herscher, a director of humanitarian and crisis relief projects at the American Joint Jewish Distribution Committee in Jerusalem (front row, left), and television and film writer Aron Coleite (front row, third from left) — and the sons’ spouses and children.

Like so many immigrants, creating a family tree here in the United States has been an important part of Herscher’s life, as well as an illustration of how he continues to pay homage to his late grandparents. He has been married for 23 years to his wife, Myna, (though they’ve been together for 26), and each brought two sons from previous marriages. Josh Herscher was a history teacher and coach at Venice High School and now coaches for USC; Gideon Herscher works for the American Joint Jewish Distriction Committee in Jerusalem; Aron Coleite is a television and film writer; and Adam Coleite is a film editor. Four grandchildren have been added in recent years.

Myna, also a child of immigrant parents, is a now-retired clinical psychologist, and she has long spent much of her time working at the Skirball, which, when prodded, she admits is without compensation. She was intricately involved with the creation of the highly popular “Noah’s Ark” installation, and is currently helping to create an archive of the center’s papers.

Their home, too, has been a think tank for the Skirball, including at one Passover Seder, where the idea for the exhibition about Albert Einstein was conceived. “David Baltimore, then president of Caltech, was there, along with his wife,” Uri Herscher remembers, “And Steven Sample, then the president of USC, and his wife, as well as Hanoch Gutfreund, president of the Hebrew University, and Barry Munitz, then head of the Getty Center, was there with his wife. We said, ‘Who in history is a human being who happens to also have fame, and who acted in the most civilized way at that time?’ ” They settled on Einstein, and the idea for one of the Skirball’s most popular efforts, combining science and humanism, was born.

As one who has accomplished so much, Herscher still takes time to nurture others, and when Mitch Kamin, for example, then an attorney in his 30s, became executive director of the nonprofit legal-aid firm Bet Tzedek, Herscher met every couple of months with Kamin and mentored him on leadership. Herscher has continued that tradition with Sandy Samuels, the current head of the agency, seeing in Bet Tzedek a role for Jews in giving services to all people in need that matches the Skirball’s mission.

Despite being in his eighth decade, Herscher said he has no plans to retire, and that at the center, “the real task is beginning.” A priority, he said, is revitalizing the core, historical exhibits. “We’ve learned a lot from Noah’s Ark as an example of what works,” he said. He is also considering trying to make the restaurant a destination in itself, perhaps opening for more hours, and rethinking the shop. And he wants the new conference center “to be a home for the social issues that confront us daily, whether it be the horrific distance between the rich and the poor, or health care — I can see it deal with the whole notion of imagination.”

But it is in regard to his staff that Herscher’s big heart shows through most clearly. Myna noted that he spent his last birthday lunching with the kitchen staff at the center, and he has made a point that everyone who works at the Skirball deserves recognition, as well as praise when due — and heartfelt thanks. For that reason, the official gala celebrating the new hall will not be its true inauguration — a similar lavish event has already taken place for all staff, volunteers and their spouses, including some 600 attendees. 

“It lifted, appropriately, morale,” Herscher said. 

And Herscher said the gala on Oct. 19 is designed not as a fundraiser, but, instead, as a “thank you dinner,” a full-throated celebration of what Herscher and friends have achieved in what he once dubbed the “Thank You America Cultural Center.” 

Asked what he wants to express to his many friends and colleagues at the gala honoring his life’s work, Herscher didn’t hesitate to answer.

“Gratitude. Gratitude. Gratitude.”

High Holy Days: Sermons take a chapter from writer’s book of life


In 1963, Richard Levy was in his mid-20s and in his last year of rabbinical school when he was sent on an internship to a synagogue in Jasper, Ala. About the time of Rosh Hashanah, not far away in the town of Birmingham, a bomb exploded at the 16th Street Baptist Church, an African-American place of worship, and four girls were killed.

Segregation ruled in the South and African-Americans lived in awful conditions, violence targeting blacks was common, and tensions between white and blacks were high. And there was Levy, finding himself on the pulpit during the High Holy Days, with an audience of Southern Jews looking to him for inspiration. 

Did this 20-something have the life experience to give an effective sermon under such turbulent circumstances? 

Levy, now a faculty member at his alma mater, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR), found that he was able to inspire people, despite his age and the fact that the civil rights movement in the South was happening around him. And it changed him, too.

“My experience in Jasper as a student rabbi with contacts in the Jewish community added hugely to my own life,” Levy told the Journal in an interview.

Every year during the High Holy Days, prominent rabbis in the community offer up sermons that are stirring, emotional and meaningful. These clergy have been doing this for years, if not decades. 

But what of the student rabbis who give High Holy Days sermons? Every year, HUC-JIR, American Jewish University and the Academy of Jewish Religion, California — local rabbinical colleges where students embark on programs to be ordained as rabbis — send their students to congregations as part of internships, or student pulpits, that are intended to give them hands-on experience. This includes delivering sermons during the holiest time of the year.

Jaclyn Fromer Cohen, who is entering her fifth and final year of rabbinical school at HUC-JIR this fall, pondered the question of whether the limited life experience of students hinders their ability to give an effective sermon of such importance. Yes and no, she said. 

Last year, the 29-year-old from Brentwood gave the sermon on the second day of Rosh Hashanah at Pacific Palisades congregation Kehillat Israel, and she plans to return to the Reconstructionist synagogue this year to do the same. 

Cohen says she understands the ambivalence that congregants who are older — sometimes several decades older — might have sitting in a synagogue while a student in his or her 20s links life wisdom with Jewish text on the biggest days of the Jewish calendar. 

“You stand in front of the firing squad and hope for the best,” she said. 

The trick, Cohen continued, is to realize one’s age and limitations, rather than overcompensating for them and pretending to have lived more than one has — and to draw from what one has experienced, all the while remaining humble.

“I am very much aware of what I’ve been through, and I am very much aware of what I haven’t been through,” she said. “I am not going to speak in a way that says, ‘I’m a 29-year-old, and I have been through X, Y and Z, and now I will talk to you because [I know everything].’ I don’t think most people do that.

“But I do think what I try to do is I try to say, ‘Listen, I’ve had life experiences, the people I’m talking to have had their own, the person sitting next to the person I’m talking to has had their own. We come with our respective baggage and our respective things and our skeletons in the closet.’ And I try to honor that, and I try never to speak to things I don’t know,” she said.

This thinking has worked for her so far, she said, reporting that congregants offered positive feedback to her sermon that connected a contemporary issue — gun violence — with the biblical story of the binding of Isaac, which Cohen says is the “first mention of love in the Torah.”

Rabbi Ed Feinstein, senior rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, has given more than 40 High Holy Days sermons at one of the largest Conservative congregations in the area. He said that those who wonder if student rabbis have sufficient life experience to be giving High Holy Days sermons is a completely valid concern for an outside party to have.

Valid but also ultimately irrelevant, he argued. To give a good High Holy Days sermon — or any sermon, for that matter — one needs two things: an in-depth knowledge of Torah and an open heart, Feinstein said.

“It’s not you speaking, you are channeling Torah. If you are saying something important, from the heart, about the human condition, and you are talking about how Torah is bringing wisdom to this, then people will listen to you,” he said. “You can’t speak on your own. You don’t know. What do you know about these things? But you have something important from the world of Torah to say, and people have come to hear your Torah, and that’s what they hear.”

Sometimes students will make the mistake, however, of overcompensating for their age, said Rabbi Ron Stern of Stephen S. Wise Temple, who works with rabbinic students on sermons as an HUC-JIR instructor on homiletics, a required course for students that focuses on the development of sermons. The mistake these students make is trying to make up for experience by overloading their sermons with traditional text that, to the unschooled people in the audience, sounds like a foreign language. In such cases, “sermons become academic presentations,” he said.

As for Levy — the rabbi of the campus synagogue and director of spiritual growth at HUC-JIR’s Los Angeles campus — his days of student pulpits are long behind him. 

In some respects, however, Levy says students have an edge over seasoned rabbis.

“Freshness always bring an advantage,” he said. 

And if the student takes that freshness, is humble, aware of his or her lack of life experience and still fails to connect? 

“They’re still students,” he said. “Hopefully people [will be] forgiving or understanding.”

A deaf rabbi who listens


Imagine taking a graduate school class — a small one, with maybe a dozen students — and for the entire year, not being able to understand a single word the professor said. For your final examination, you have to rely on notes compiled from your classmates and pray they understood the material enough to effectively teach you. 

For Rabbi Rebecca Dubowe, who was ordained 20 years ago as the world’s first Reform deaf rabbi, that’s how she got through one of her first-year rabbinical school classes in Israel.

“There was one professor in particular who had a beard that completely covered his mouth, and there was absolutely no way I could see what he was saying,” said Dubowe, a spiritual leader at Temple Adat Elohim, a Reform congregation of more than 600 families in Thousand Oaks. 

Dubowe was born with moderately severe/profound hearing loss. She communicates mainly through spoken English, although she can read lips and is fluent in American Sign Language (ASL). Others may think this made her different — especially as a member of the clergy — but she never saw it that way.

“My intention was not to be different from anyone else,” Dubowe said. “I don’t feel different from others because there are certain things that I don’t hear. That was not the way I was raised. My parents never said, ‘Because you’re deaf you should or shouldn’t do this.’ They said, ‘You’re Rebecca, and you’re interested in that, so do it.’ ”

The Los Angeles native didn’t initially know that she wanted to become a rabbi, but during a summer-long stay with family in Israel, she began to feel a much deeper bond with her heritage.

“I became very connected with my cousin’s mother-in-law, who was a Holocaust survivor from Hungary, and she knew I was very interested in learning and speaking Hebrew,” Dubowe said. “She only spoke in Hebrew with me, and she was very patient. She told me lots of stories about her life and being a pioneer of the kibbutz.”

After being in college for two years, Dubowe went back to Israel, spending five months on her cousin’s moshav — a cooperative agricultural settlement. When she returned, she knew she wanted to be a Jewish professional. 

“My options were to be a cantor, which I probably shouldn’t be — can’t be; be an educator, which I really thought about but wasn’t really interested in the idea of being in the classroom all day; and maybe social work, which I love to do,” Dubowe said. “The rabbinate included all of that — social work, being a counselor, being a part of people’s lives, and being a teacher in the classroom and outside of the classroom.”

With a bachelor’s degree in Jewish studies from the then-University of Judaism (now American Jewish University), she went on to attend rabbinical school at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR).

“After interviewing at a Conservative school and HUC, I felt like HUC was ready for me. I didn’t think the Conservative movement was keen on having someone with a disability,” Dubowe said.

The journey was not without complications. As an undergraduate, she had always had an interpreter in class. However, her first year at HUC-JIR was in Israel, and finding a local interpreter who was fluent in ASL was nearly impossible. She had to do her best with a combination of lip reading, hearing aids and notes from multiple classmates. 

Rabbi David Ellenson, one of Dubowe’s former professors and HUC-JIR’s current president, knew she was an especially gifted student. 

“From the very outset, she was effervescent, empathic, intelligent, and committed to Jewish life and learning,” he said. “Her career has been a model of success, and she has brought deep Jewish sensitivity to issues of identity and inclusion.”

Dubowe faced another hurdle once she was ordained. Would anyone hire her? Of the 17 open positions she applied for, she was offered two jobs. Ultimately, she accepted a position as an assistant rabbi in a synagogue in New Jersey. Four years later, she was back in the Los Angeles area at Temple Adat Elohim.

Dubowe said her hearing loss hardly gets in the way of her job as a rabbi.

“There is a rare moment that I may not understand the person speaking. However, if necessary, I would ask them to write it down or repeat what they said, but it has not really been a problem,” she said. 

Aliza Goland, the synagogue’s executive director, said Dubowe’s greatest strength is sort of an ironic one. 

“She is a good listener,” she said. “She anticipates congregants’ needs and is ready and able to consistently exceed their expectations. She listens with kindness and empathy and is genuinely interested in people’s stories.”

And she’s made her congregation a more inclusive place in the process.

“She has brought a heightened awareness and sensitivity about all kinds of disabilities to our community,” Goland said.

Dubowe improved her hearing three years ago when she received a cochlear implant — a year after her husband, Michael, who also has profound hearing loss, had the same procedure performed. (Still, she needs to face a person to understand what they are saying.) Her two daughters also are hard of hearing, though the family mostly communicates with each other via spoken English, with occasional signing. 

While she leads a hearing congregation, Dubowe is involved with the Jewish deaf community. As an undergraduate, Dubowe taught Sunday school at Temple Beth Solomon of the Deaf, the San Fernando Valley shul that calls itself the world’s first congregation for the deaf.

She works with the Washington Society of Jewish Deaf as well, and while attending an American Jewish Congress conference on its behalf, she led Shabbat morning services.

“At my service, we had a PowerPoint so we didn’t have to hold on to a book. Rather, we could use our hands and sign prayers,” she said. 

Dubowe also led an ASL Birthright trip and is actively involved with Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., which specializes in educating students who are deaf and hard of hearing.

But Dubowe’s favorite part of her job would be the same even if she could hear.

“The best part about being a rabbi is being part of people’s lives,” she said. “Being there for moments of sadness and moments of joy — watching a child grow. I feel like it’s a privilege and honor to be a part of the life cycle, of the journey — being face to face with people and creating relationships.”

As she’s known all along, you don’t need to hear to do that. You just need to listen.

HUC president-elect to expand technology, innovation


Rabbi Aaron Panken, the newly announced president-elect of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR), said just days after being named that he hopes to bring a fresh perspective to the Reform movement’s academic home by marrying technology, creativity and a renewed commitment to Reform values, including at the HUC-JIR Los Angeles campus.

“I think L.A. is a really fertile place for the development of progressive Jewish life,” Panken said during a phone interview on Aug. 1, a day after his appointment was announced by the HUC-JIR board of governors. Panken takes on his new role on Jan. 1, succeeding Rabbi David Ellenson, a former dean at the L.A. campus who has been president since 2001 and will become chancellor.

As president of HUC-JIR, Panken will serve in the top leadership position — chief executive officer — of the international university and Reform seminary’s four campuses, which are located in Los Angeles, Cincinnati, Jerusalem and New York. 

Panken’s experience with HUC-JIR dates back to the mid-1990s. At HUC-JIR, he has served as vice president for strategic initiatives, dean of the New York campus and dean of students. He joined the Reform seminary’s faculty in 1995, and he currently serves as an assistant professor of rabbinic and Second Temple literature.

But it is his tech-savvy background that, in many ways, is expected to inform the way he leads. Unlike most rabbis, who tend to gravitate toward the humanities and social sciences as undergraduates, Panken’s first degree was in electrical engineering from Johns Hopkins University. (He is also a licensed commercial pilot.)

He said such interests have led him to look at increasing the role technology plays in shaping HUC-JIR’s programming.

“The religious scene is changing in North America, and we will have to try some new interesting initiatives to attract and retain people and develop an exciting and innovative Jewish community,” he said.

Panken will become the 12th president in the seminary’s 138-year history, and he praised his predecessor’s achievements in bringing in top-tier faculty, highly motivated students and turning HUC-JIR into what he called a “first-rate Jewish intellectual center.” 

It is a legacy that he would like to continue, he said.

But new challenges lie ahead, including finding ways to reach and engage a generation of young Jews “reluctant to form connections with centralized institutions and organizations,” Panken said.

“The question is, how can synagogues, schools and seminaries think carefully about how to reach out to individuals who have real religious needs but don’t always feel compelled to be connected,” Panken said.

As examples of new methods and approaches he pointed to a synagogue in a large metropolitan area that, after hiring a recent HUC-JIR graduate, told the new rabbi to spend less time in the synagogue and more time in cafes, bookstores and coffee shops, meeting Jews where they actually spend their time. Another freshly minted HUC-JIR graduate is establishing a liberal Jewish mikveh.

“It’s this kind of innovation and creativity that keeps Judaism exciting and alive and attractive to a lot of people,” he said.

Panken, 49, earned his doctorate in Hebrew and Judaic studies from New York University and serves on the faculty for the Wexner Foundation, the editorial board of Reform Judaism magazine, the Birthright education committee and the Central Conference of American Rabbis ethics committee. His journey with the Reform movement began at a New York Reform synagogue’s nursery school when he was 3 years old, and he said he has never looked back.

“That kind of meaningful relationship that you can form within a religious community has really shaped my life,” he said. “And if I can in any way help my students and help the rest of the Jewish community benefit and grow that kind of wonderful religious community, then that’s exactly what I want to be doing with my life.”

One challenge Panken won’t have is making sure the institution is financially solvent. In 2008, the nationwide recession hit the school hard, even threatening for a brief time the closure of the Hebrew Union’s L.A. campus, but thanks in part to the efforts of Ellenson and Josh Holo, dean of the L.A. campus, HUC-JIR is now financially stable, Panken said.

Panken praised all that Ellenson has brought to the table — including inspiring the movement to value Torah study and stressing the importance of studying theology, philosophy and ethics in engaging the modern Jewish world, he said — while acknowledging ways that they are different from each other.

“There are certain ways that I think in terms of technology, in terms of outreach that are maybe a little bit different,” he said.

And, with the seminary’s books in order, Panken can focus his energy upon what really matters to him.

“I think we can focus on mission and vision and the kind of important things we care about,” he said, “as opposed to worrying about closure and things like that.” 

Hebrew Union College elects new president


Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) has elected its former dean, Rabbi Aaron Panken, as its new president. Panken succeeds Rabbi David Ellenson, who will become HUC-JIR’s new chancellor upon his retirement from the position of president.

“I am greatly honored to be called to serve as the president of HUC-JIR and to strive for ongoing innovation and creativity in strengthening our institution as the intellectual center of progressive Judaism worldwide,” Panken said in a statement released by HUC-JIR on Wednesday.

As president of HUC-JIR, Panken will serve in the top leadership position – chief executive officer – of the international university and Reform seminary’s four campuses – in Los Angeles, Cincinnati, Jerusalem and New York. His appointment becomes effective January 1.

At HUC-JIR, Panken previously served as vice president for strategic initiatives, dean of the New York campus and dean of students — he joined the Reform seminary’s faculty in 1995, and he currently serves as an assistant professor of Rabbinic and Second Temple Literature.

Like Panken, Ellenson will begin at the start of 2014 in his new role as chancellor.

The HUC-JIR board of governors elected Panken into the position, with Irwin Engelman, chairman of the board and Martin Cohen, chairman of the presidential search committee, announcing their selection on Wednesday.

“We are proud that Dr. Panken will be leading our institution,” Engelman said. “He is a distinguished rabbi and scholar, dedicated teacher, and committed leader of the Reform movement for more than three decades.”

Panken’s relationship with Hebrew Union dates back to 1991, when he was ordained at its New York campus. According to his biography on the HUC-JIR website, he serves in a number of “leadership roles within the reform movement and greater Jewish community.” Among the organizations he is involved with are the Wexner Foundation, the New Israel Fund, the Central Conference of American Rabbis and Birthright Israel.

To read Panken’s statement regarding his appointment in its entirety, visit huc.edu.

Weeklong event explores Judaism and wellness


When Rabbi Laura Geller learned that her father had Alzheimer’s disease, she struggled with the news. He was only in his 70s, after all, and it was painful for her to watch the man who had raised her — who she said had been “important and powerful and wonderful” in her life — lose his ability to perform daily tasks. 

For solace, she turned not to a doctor, a psychologist or any other health care professional. Instead, she found her coping strategy in the pages of the Talmud. 

Geller recalled the story of Moses receiving the Ten Commandments. Both sets of tablets — those that Moses smashed when he saw the Israelites worshipping the golden calf, and the second set he received as a replacement — were placed in the ark for safekeeping. Why keep the broken set? Rabbinical commentary says they represent the broken among us, the sick, those who have forgotten the Torah. They, too, remain sacred. 

The story gave Geller strength as she cared for her father. She now tells it to her congregants at Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills so they can draw meaning from it. 

“The fact that we have this anecdote in the Talmud shows that in a text that old, they were wrestling with the same issues we are,” Geller said. “Because we’re part of this larger community — one that exists across generations — there’s a sense of accumulated wisdom. Other people have walked these paths. Maybe we’ll handle them in different ways, but we’re not alone.”

That’s the idea behind Jewish Wisdom and Wellness: A Week of Learning, a wide-ranging conference to be held next week at venues across Los Angeles and elsewhere in Southern California. Organized jointly by the Kalsman Institute on Judaism and Health of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) and Cedars-Sinai, the event is designed to draw thousands of local Jews together to explore the question: What does Judaism have to say about living a whole and healthy life?

Participants can sign up for more than 60 lectures, workshops and classes April 21-27 taking place at synagogues and Jewish institutions around the city. Topics will include yoga, elder care, sexual health and meditation, among many others, and will involve a combination of text study, conversation and movement. Nearly all sessions are free and open to the public. 

What attendees might find, said Joel Kushner, interim director of the Kalsman Institute, is that Judaism offers a surprising volume of guidance on wellness, healing and living with gusto.

“Our purpose is to raise the dialogue of Judaism and healing in the community and show everyone that we have all these resources,” Kushner said. “So many people turn outside of Judaism for their spiritual practice, when really, we have it in our tradition — it’s just about accessing it. We’re trying to take what’s already there and share that with Jewish L.A.”

Audiences might be ready to listen. A recent surge of interest in Jewish spirituality has given rise to an explosion of Jewish yoga and meditation groups, and the study of Kabbalah has been luring Jews seeking spirituality for years. On top of that, the immutable human need for healing is heightened during times of economic crisis, Kushner said, leading people to lean on faith — and on one another. 

Jewish Wisdom and Wellness: A Week of Learning was a year and a half in the making. Cedars-Sinai had worked with the Kalsman Institute to expand its spiritual care program, now headed by Rabbi Jason Weiner, and the two institutions sought another way to keep collaborating. 

Jonathan Schreiber, director of community engagement at Cedars-Sinai, and Michele Prince, then-director of the Kalsman Institute, decided to co-sponsor a conference that probed the connection between Judaism and health. But they knew the event would hardly register on the radars of far-flung Angelenos if they organized it the traditional way. 

“We thought, ‘If we want to turn that idea on its head, let’s contact hundreds of people and turn this into a topic that’s discussed throughout the L.A. area,” Schreiber said. 

So he and Prince asked congregations, academic institutions and nonprofits to propose programs they would like to host under the umbrella of religion and wellness, then provided micro-grants of $250 to $500 to about 40 participating organizations to cover their costs. The result is a crowd-sourced symposium inclusive of all ages, all denominations and Jews on both sides of the 405. 

“We know in L.A. it’s sometimes hard to get people to come to an event because there’s so much competition for attention,” said Prince, a social worker who now is the executive director of Our House Grief Support Center. “Instead of asking people to come to us, we wanted to catalyze projects happening in every corner of L.A.”

The week will kick off with a panel discussion at Cedars-Sinai, moderated by Rob Eshman, publisher and editor-in-chief of the Jewish Journal, on the power of Judaism to carry those in crisis through trying times. Those participating in the panel are Geller; Valley Beth Shalom’s Rabbi Ed Feinstein; Rabbi Naomi Levy of Nashuva; and Rabbi Abner Weiss of Westwood Village Synagogue.

Other offerings across the city include a workshop on Jewish-flavored art therapy, a healing drum circle, chevra kadisha training in Jewish burial practices, a discussion on food justice and Jewish tai chi. 

“In Hebrew, there’s a connection between ‘wholeness,’ ‘healing’ and ‘holiness,’ ” Weiss said. “We didn’t borrow that concept from the mystics of the East. From Maimonides to Nachmanides, there are very strong psychosomatic elements in the Jewish tradition.”

Art exhibits at HUC-JIR’s Jack H. Skirball Campus near USC and Shulamit Gallery in Venice will explore the connection between healing and painting, sculpture and photography. A closing concert at Leo Baeck Temple will celebrate the music of Debbie Friedman, whose tune for the healing prayer, “Mi Shebeirach,” is sung by congregations everywhere. 

Kushner hopes participants come away scratching their heads — in a good way. 

“You might go, ‘I didn’t know Judaism had so much to offer.’ ”

For more information about Jewish Wisdom and Wellness: A Week of Learning, visit this article at jewishjournal.com.

Why counting counts: Who knows who L.A.’s Jews are?


Susan Goldberg, rabbi of Temple Beth Israel of Highland Park and Eagle Rock, grew up in nearby Echo Park.

“There were no Jewish families around when I was growing up,” Goldberg, 38, said. Now that these neighborhoods are being gentrified, and a young, creative crowd is moving in, the Jews are coming, too.

Some five years ago, Temple Beth Israel, a nearly 90-year-old congregation, counted 30 individual members. Today, she said, “We’re bursting at the seams with young families, parents in their 30s and 40s who are living here, in Mount Washington, in Highland Park, in Eagle Rock,” Goldberg said.

But for all the anecdotal evidence that Jews are moving eastward, no one knows exactly how many Jews comprise this trend.

“We know they’re out there, because when we have events, they come,” Goldberg said. “But it would be so, so tremendously helpful to know where they are, who they are, how many there are.”

Los Angeles hasn’t done a Jewish community survey since 1997, and with nothing concrete in the works, organizations are “flying blind,” in the words of one demographer.

“No other large Jewish community has been without a study for such a long period of time,” said Jacob Ukeles, president of Ukeles Associates Inc., a firm that helped conduct New York’s recently released survey.

And that can have serious implications for how effectively a community responds to needs.

“We need to know who lives where, what they do Jewishly, what diversity exists among Jews, what needs they have, what resources they have and what they think on a variety of issues,” said Sarah Bunin Benor, associate professor of Contemporary Jewish Studies at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) in Los Angeles. “That’s my take on it, from the perspective of somebody who wants to help Jews have a better life.”

Jay Sanderson, president and CEO of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, said conducting such a study is “rising to the top of our agenda.”

“We really need to do it. We know we need to do it, and I believe we will do it. We have to figure out the resources and how we’re going to pay for it,” Sanderson said in an interview.

A study of Los Angeles’ Jews, who are believed to number between 500,000 and 600,000, would likely cost somewhere around $1 million. In most cities with large and medium-sized Jewish populations, Federation pays for a survey once a decade. Los Angeles conducted community surveys in 1950, 1958, 1968, 1979 and 1997.

When Sanderson took office in 2010, no study was in the pipeline, and he said he had initially hoped to launch one quickly. But as the impact of the recession became more severe, Sanderson said, funds continued to be redirected to such programs as the Emergency Cash Grants, which has provided more than $2.6 million in relief to 5,350 recipients since 2009.

“Now, with everything we’re doing, we’re still trying to put a survey on the front burner,” Sanderson said.

Federation hopes to launch the process in the next year, Sanderson said — if he can figure out where the money will come from.

But the more time that goes by without a survey, the less efficiently the community is spending its dollars, demographers say.

“If you have a Federation that says they are the planning body of the community, where are they getting their information?” asked Pini Herman, a principal at Phillips and Herman Demographic Research. Herman was the L.A. Federation’s research coordinator for the 1997 survey; he has also worked on surveys in San Francisco, Houston and Seattle.

“The longer you don’t have a survey, the more you have to guess, and basically you’re snatching ideas and data out of thin air. And without any community study, there is no way to confirm or refute what they say,” Herman said.

Community leaders say they are eager to have current data.

“Synagogues call all the time, wanting to know where the Jews are moving. Are they moving into our area? Out of our area? Are we losing members because Jews are leaving this area, or for some other reason?” said Bruce Phillips, a principal, with Pini Herman, at Phillips and Herman Demographic Research and a professor of sociology and Jewish communal studies at HUC-JIR in Los Angeles. Phillips has conducted or published research on more than 20 Jewish community surveys.

Other questions in Los Angeles also need answering. How many Iranian Jews live here, and what is there economic profile? Their Jewish identity? Their integration patterns?

What areas are people moving to and away from? Are nearby cities that are experiencing growth, such as San Francisco, Phoenix and Las Vegas, doing so at the expense of Los Angeles, or along with Los Angeles? How many French and Latin American Jews have moved into the area, and are they being served? Has the Orthodox population increased, and if so, in what sectors?

Anecdotal evidence about subpopulations can be deceiving, Phillips said, as it’s easier to count visible Jews who are frequent users of community resources — for instance, the Orthodox, or immigrant populations. The unaffiliated are more likely to go undetected if you rely on visibility or data from Jewish organizations.

A topic open to debate is how many Israelis are in Los Angeles. While some estimate there are hundreds of thousands of Israelis in Los Angeles, Herman says his own research points to a number closer to a maximum of 25,000, a figure corroborated by the official Israeli count of how many people have left their country.

The Los Angeles Jewish population, once concentrated on the Westside and in the San Fernando Valley, is migrating toward the East Side and north to areas such as the Conejo, Santa Clarita and Simi Valleys.

Several organizations are investing both money and resources in the East Side, including Federation, which has funded a new staff person at East Side Jews, a nondenominational Jewish community that has attracted hundreds of young, hip Jews to its irreverent monthly holiday celebrations and social events. East Side Jews recently became part of the Silverlake Independent Jewish Community Center, an organization that is on a short list to receive significant Federation funding for a renovation and expansion project.

At the same time, Temple Beth Israel’s Goldberg said, Jews in the area remain underserved. When she needs to refer people for social services, she is often told that Jewish agencies don’t extend out to her part of town. In addition to leading Temple Beth Israel, Goldberg serves as rabbi-in-residence for East Side Jews, a position co-supported by Wilshire Boulevard Temple, which is also interested in being part of the East Side Jewish renaissance.

Indeed, Wilshire Boulevard Temple is in the middle of a $150 million project to restore and revitalize its historic sanctuary and campus in Koreatown. Before embarking on that project, the congregation commissioned its own demographic study of the area — roughly from West Hollywood on the west to Eagle Rock and Pasadena on the East, stretching from Adams Boulevard on the South up to Studio City and Glendale.

“I intuitively felt that young Jews were moving eastward, but intuition is not always right,” Wilshire Boulevard Temple’s Rabbi Steven Leder said.

Their study, which cost them about $25,000, found around 30 percent growth in the area over the last 10 years, with the most significant increases in the population of childbearing and -rearing age. That information convinced the synagogue’s leadership to buy up the rest of their square block to make room for more parking, an expanded day school, religious school and social service center.

Having data has also made it easier to approach donors, Leder said.

“It’s important to know that there is hard data to support your assumptions when you’re trying to raise money,” he said.

Wilshire Boulevard Temple’s study was based on Jewish surnames in voter registration listings — a method that may have left out Jews who have a non-Jewish parent or who are married to non-Jews, a population that, anecdotally at least, accounts for much of the growth on the East Side.

Leading feminist theologian to be ordained … at last


In the first few weeks of Rachel Adler’s rabbinic internship at Beth Chayim Chadashim (BCC), Rabbi Lisa Edwards had a hard time introducing Adler. For decades, Edwards had quoted Adler; she had taken classes with Adler and had been deeply influenced by Adler’s acclaimed works on Jewish feminism and feminist theology.

“It felt ridiculous to be introducing Rachel as a ‘student’ rabbi,” Edwards said. “I couldn’t do it without laughing, and I would have to explain why I was laughing. So, somewhere along the way, ‘scholar-in-residence’ evolved as a secondary title.”

Adler, who is 68 and a professor of Jewish religious thought and feminist studies at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR), will be ordained as a Reform rabbi at the college on May 13.

David Ellenson, president of HUC-JIR who served as Adler’s advisor when she earned a doctorate in religion in 1997, calls Adler “arguably the leading feminist theologian in the entire world.”

“She has taught the Jewish community in virtually an unparalleled way for almost 40 years, from the time of her earliest writings in the 1970s to the present day. … Many of the changes that have occurred in Jewish life that have allowed the community to be inclusive of women have been a result of Rachel Adler’s efforts,” he said.

“Rachel will now officially become what she has been and was destined to be — a rabbi among the Jewish people,” Ellenson said.

Adler has no plans to change her career path once she earns the title of rabbi. But she said that becoming a rabbi finally closes a circle that began for her at Jewish summer camp in Wisconsin in 1960, when a visiting scholar told her the Reform movement would soon begin ordaining women and he thought she would make a good rabbi (HUC admitted the first female rabbinic students in 1968). Adler liked the idea, but by the time she graduated from Northwestern University in 1965 with a degree in English literature, she had become more observant and was married to an Orthodox rabbi.

“I just kind of put that to the side and said, ‘well, that is something you don’t get to do,’ ” Adler said in an interview recently at her Pico-Robertson-area apartment.

But she continued to study Jewish thought, and she evolved as an important Jewish feminist thinker, gaining international attention with her 1971 publication of “The Jew Who Wasn’t There: Halakhah and the Jewish Woman,” in Davka magazine, as well as her 1972 publication for “The Jewish Catalog” of “Tum’ah and Taharah: Ends and Beginnings,” a treatise on family purity laws that she later recanted.

While Adler began her critical studies from within an Orthodox framework, she soon moved leftward and outside of Orthodoxy, though she has always maintained that halachah, Jewish law, could not be ignored.

Adler divorced in 1984, and in 1986 she enrolled at HUC-JIR to work on a doctorate.

“I thought about becoming a rabbi, but I decided the Jewish people needed me to become a theologian and didn’t really need me to become a rabbi,” she said. Her book, “Engendering Judaism: An Inclusive Theology and Ethics” (Jewish Publication Society, 1998) based on her doctoral thesis, won the 1998 National Jewish Book award in Jewish thought.

Over the years Adler has taught countless students in both formal and informal settings, with Talmud classes still taking place at the dining room table where she now sits, stroking her cat, a blue tabby named Dagesh.

“For a while I’ve been kind of a half-rabbi — a shadow rabbi — and I thought it would be a nice completion to become a rabbi for real,” Adler said.

Tall with multihued gray hair swept back from her face and large silver earrings, Adler appears to be by nature shy and introverted, and she answers questions about herself haltingly. But she takes any opening to digress into tales of midrash, Talmud or Jewish thought, becoming engaged and amused with the sources as they unfold into the conversation.

Her son, a Conservative rabbi in Chicago, is married to a Reform rabbi, and Adler plans to help her daughter-in-law, who is pregnant, lead services over the High Holy Days. Adler remarried in 1987 and divorced in 2005.

She was raised in Chicago and has master’s degrees in English literature and social work, which fulfilled her chaplaincy requirements as she studied for ordination.

The fact that she has long taught many of the classes rabbis are required to take to complete ordination helped her complete her coursework in two years, rather than five. She also completed a number of classes through independent study and continued to teach for most of that time, with one semester off as a sabbatical.

For her required internship, Adler chose to work at BCC, a congregation of 225 members located on Pico Boulevard near Fairfax Avenue that serves the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender communities.

“It was one of those experiences that makes you less arrogant, because you realize that everyone has a story and a set of experiences, and everyone has a portion of Torah to teach,” Adler said. “I learned that there are so many different lives and so many different contexts, that I can’t just take out a premade set of expectations and lay stuff on people. I have to think about how people can learn something, and what is something that is crying out to be learned by those particular people.”

Edwards admits that, at first, she wondered how much time Adler would be able to offer to the congregation, but she said she was quickly amazed at how invested Adler became in synagogue life, teaching classes, but also leading services and delivering sermons that were both deep and peppered with humor.

Since her internship began last May, Adler has been attending Shabbat services at BCC nearly every week so she could get to know congregants.

In turn, the congregants soon learned that beyond being a formidable intellect, Adler is approachable and cares deeply about them. Edwards said Adler often picked up on needs or nuances that she had missed, and she empowered congregants to develop religiously.

“People are often struggling with the existence of God, or at least with their own relationship with God, and Rachel makes that very approachable. She gives you permission to struggle, and yet you have this sense that she is strong in her belief,” Edwards said.

On a recent Monday afternoon, Adler taught a Talmud class at BCC to about a dozen students. They studied a text that dealt with demons, doves, Elijah, and the purpose and context of prayer. As they studied together, Adler adeptly elicited questions on the text and honored the students’ thoughts by citing rabbinic sources that echoed their ideas.

Her strength as a teacher flows not from charisma or animation — she speaks slowly and evenly, carefully choosing each word and taking time to respond — but rather from her vast knowledge, which she employs to make points that touch on her students’ lives. The discussion turned to questions of who has been demonized, and who is to say who may pray where, questions pertinent to LGBT Jews.

“I think dealing with an LGBT congregation, there is an immense need for hopefulness, and there is an immense need for teaching people the possibility of redemption, because for some people the world has been very evil indeed,” Adler said.

It is that sort of insight, and the ability to connect traditional sources to contemporary needs, that has given Adler the power to influence so many. Tamara Cohn Eskenazi, a professor of Bible at HUC-JIR in Los Angeles and editor of “The Torah: A Women’s Commentary” (URJ Press: 2007), said she came to HUC in Los Angeles in part because she knew Adler was here. A talk by Adler in the early 1980s in Denver was the first to awaken Eskenazi to the idea of revealing women’s voices in Jewish texts.

“Women moved from being absent to be being empowered to find our voices. We discovered that in rabbinic literature we do have a voice, and in the Bible we do have a voice. People were not paying attention to it, but Rachel was paying attention, and she got all of us to pay attention.”

Eskenazi, who is older than Adler, is also working toward ordination.

“When you are an academic, the expectation is that you are intellectually and scholarly savvy, and an expert in your field,” Eskenazi said. “But I feel that teaching Torah or teaching Tanach [Bible] is part of living a certain kind of life and needs to be part of a larger sphere of application, and the role of a rabbi really speaks to that integration.”

Dvora Weisberg, director of HUC-JIR’s rabbinical school in Los Angeles and an associate professor of rabbinic literature, was ordained last year. She said she had wanted to be a rabbi since she was a teen, but at the time the Conservative movement was not yet ordaining women. She instead got her doctorate in Talmud and rabbinics, and, like Adler, now felt ready to be a rabbi.

“For a long time, for women like us, there were issues that were beyond our control — such as which schools were ordaining women — and then family issues, responsibility to children. Or you have career issues, like trying to get tenure and the need to be publishing,” Weisberg said.

“I think Rachel and Tamar and I have come to a place in our lives where we want to do this, and we don’t want to wait any longer.”

What’s in a word? For ‘ordained’ rather than ‘invested’ cantors, a lot


What’s the difference between investiture and ordination?

Plenty, say officials at the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, which has announced that for the first time since establishing its cantorial school in 1948, it will ordain rather than invest its graduating class of cantors.

Six graduates will be ordained Sunday in ceremonies at Temple Emanu-El in New York.

The change has been several years in the making. Reform movement officials say it both recognizes the elevated role that cantors have in modern times and eliminates some barriers they have faced in their clergy work. For example, one cantor in California could not visit a congregant in prison because prison officials did not recognize her as a bona fide member of the clergy.

“She was unable to fulfill her pastoral duty to her own synagogue member because the prison world didn’t understand the word investiture,” said Jodi Schechtman, a cantor in Framingham, Mass.,  who as director of organizational partnerships for the American Conference of Cantors played a lead role on the language change.

The other major proponent of the change was Cantor Bruce Ruben, director of HUC’s Debbie Friedman School of Sacred Music.

A committee of officers from HUC, the American Conference of Cantors and the Central Conference of American Rabbis made the decision.

“There’s been a significant shift in the role of the cantor,” Ruben said. “Rather than just being responsible for the musical elements of the service, they have full clergy status.”

Ruben and Schechtman say the term investiture has little meaning either inside or outside the Jewish community. Ruben said the term was selected originally to make a clear distinction between rabbis and cantors, and acknowledged that some rabbis are not pleased with the change in nomenclature. But he and Schechtman say it’s necessary.

“For cantors who are serving in partnership with rabbis,” Schechtman said, “it is important for the congregation to understand the cantor is not there just as a singer, but the cantor is there to serve the congregation and to help with all aspects of Jewish life.”

Outside the synagogue, they said, the term investiture has been a stumbling block for cantors. Schechtman noted that in churches, the term cantor simply means a singer or choir leader. In some states, cantors must register as justices of the peace rather than as clergy to be recognized as legal officiants at weddings.

“If a rabbi doesn’t have to be a justice of the peace, why does a cantor?” Schechtman said.

She and Ruben said cantors are not seeking to erase the distinctions between themselves and rabbis but to raise their own professional status—a fight that rabbis battled, beginning in the middle of the 19th century, Ruben said.

There is no intent to compete with rabbis, they said.

“In most congregations, the rabbi is the final leader of the congregation. No one is trying to take that away,” Schechtman said. “We want to make sure it is understood what the role of the cantor is” and that role is beyond being a singer.

Both rabbis and cantors complete five-year programs at HUC, which also lead to master’s degrees—in Hebrew letters for the former, sacred music for the latter.

It remains unclear whether the movement will take steps to ordain cantors retroactively, Shechtman said.

The Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary H.L. Miller Cantorial School invests its cantors, but discussions are under way on changing that to ordination. The nondenominational Academy for Jewish Religion already ordains its cantors.

The Reconstructionist movement no longer offers a cantorial program, but cantors previously were invested.

Rabbi Jonathan Stein, president of the CCAR, said the intensity of those who objected to the change was strong.

“The people who are in favor are much more intellectually oriented, less passionate,” he said, noting that many of those who were against the change worried about blurring the lines between rabbis and cantors.

One rabbi who emailed Stein wrote that rabbinic ordination originated in the Bible with the laying of hands, with rabbis ordained to do effective teaching of Torah, while cantors “have a different origination and a vastly different role.” Another rabbi told Stein that ordaining cantors “defies reason and reality.”

“Cantors are cantors and rabbis are rabbis,” that objector wrote. “Let us not add to confusion to this sometime confusing situation.”

One rabbi who fully supports the decision to give cantors the professional recognition says she has not heard a backlash among her fellow Reform rabbis—on multiple listservs or in person.

“I don’t think that people are feeling threatened by it or upset about it,” said Rabbi Mindy Portnoy of Temple Sinai in Washington. “I have a feeling this is one of the issues where the ones who are upset about it are quiet.”

The Circuit: Jewish Vocational Services 80th Anniversary, Richard Michael Powell inducted into HUC


Jewish Vocational Service (JVS) celebrated its 80th anniversary on Jan. 29 with a gala at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel to honor its past board presidents. Among the 500 guests were Stanley Dashew, who received the agency’s Tzedakah Award, and emcee Keith Erickson, a former L.A. Laker and longtime CBS sports broadcaster. Thirteen board presidents attended the event as well as family members representing JVS board presidents who had passed away.


From left: JVS CEO Vivian Seigel, Tzedakah Award honoree Stanley Dashew and emcee Keith Erickson. Photo by Bill Aron


Front row, from left: Joan Berne, wife of JVS President Fred C. Berne; MaryAnn Klapper, wife of Mike Klapper; JVS President M.M. Chuck Maltz; Shirley Goldenberg, wife of Irwin H. Goldenberg; and son Dan Goldenberg. Second row, from left: David Licht; Sunny Caine; Adrienne Horwitch; Marilyn Garber, wife of Robert Garber; James Maslon; and George Polinger. Third row, from left: A. Charles Wilson, Susan W. Robertson, Abner Goldstine and Donald S. Simons.  Fourth row, from left: Current JVS President Jeffrey Paul; Jack Suzar; Ivan Axelrod, son of Morry Axelrod; Andrew Palmer, grandson of Felix Juda; and Rick Powell.
Photo by Bill Aron.



Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion inducted Richard Michael Powell, president of Ashjer, LLC, and Joan B. Seidel, president of Morton Seidel & Co. Inc. into its board of governors during a meeting in Los Angeles on Feb. 7. From left: Irwin Engelman, HUC-JIR board of governors chair; Powell; Seidel; and Rabbi David Ellenson, HUC-JIR president.

Historian charts L.A. reform academy’s future


When he took over as dean of the Los Angeles campus of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) in July 2010, Josh Holo, already a professor at the college, brought with him a few photographs of 11th-century letters to hang on the wall behind his desk. Among the letters is one that mentions a major problem for the Jewish communities in Egypt at the time: how to raise funds to redeem fellow Jews who had been taken captive by pirates.

Getting people to support HUC-JIR, the Reform movement’s preeminent academic institution on the West Coast, doesn’t have the urgency of freeing hostages from the clutches of pirates — at least not anymore.

But just two years ago, it looked like two of the four HUC-JIR campuses might have to close due to financial difficulties, including the one in Los Angeles. “We entered crisis mode,” Holo said.

Then-dean Steven F. Windmueller helped shepherd the local branch of HUC-JIR through those challenging months. “We lived through a period of testing the mettle,” Windmueller remembers. “We’re certainly in a stronger and more secure place than we were several years ago.”

That is due at least in part to a $10 million gift from the Skirball Foundation, for HUC-JIR’s endowment (see sidebar). The L.A. campus was renamed on Feb. 6 in honor of Jack Skirball, an HUC–JIR-ordained Reform rabbi. 

Holo is glad the school has put that tumultuous period behind it. “We’re back doing our work rather than worrying about our work. We are getting our house in order. We have a plan,” Holo said. “We’re either at or ahead of the plan, and that allows us to feel like we’re being responsible, and we can put our nose back to the grindstone and do what we do — which is studying and learning and training our professionals.”

L.A. HUC-JIR campus named for Skirball

At a midday ceremony on Sunday, Feb. 6, the Los Angeles branch of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion officially became the Jack H. Skirball Campus. The decision, triggered by the Skirball Foundation’s recent $10-million donation to HUC-JIR’s endowment, recognizes Skirball’s role as a founder and consistent supporter of the Reform movement’s West Coast academic home.

Skirball was ordained as a Reform rabbi at the Cincinnati campus of HUC-JIR in 1921 and served as spiritual leader to two congregations in the Midwest before moving to Los Angeles where he became a film producer. Skirball later became a successful real estate developer but is today perhaps best remembered for his philanthropic support of HUC-JIR and the Skirball Cultural Center.

The Skirball Cultural Center, which opened in 1996, started out as the smaller Skirball Museum on the campus of HUC-JIR in 1971. Founded by Uri Herscher with Skirball’s support, the cultural center was initially conceived as a vehicle for HUC-JIR to reach a broader audience. The cultural center had a long-term lease on the land in the Sepulveda Pass; in 2010 it bought the underlying property and its core collection from HUC-JIR making it, for the first time, fully independent of the institution that served as its first home. 

Those who addressed the crowd of about 100 on Sunday afternoon included leaders from both HUC-JIR and the Skirball Cultural Center.

It’s clear that these are the parts of the job that Holo enjoys most. “I love to teach,” Holo, 39, said. “I love my administration, and I don’t mind the fact that my administration takes me away from teaching, as long as I get to teach — and I do.” Upon becoming dean, Holo established a policy that will ensure that all of the future Reform rabbis and Jewish educators being trained at HUC-JIR will take one class with him during the time they are enrolled. “I want them to see the dean as a practicing scholar,” Holo said.

Holo’s scholarly work focuses on medieval Jewish history, and the photographs of letters hanging on his office wall are also included in his book, “Byzantine Jewry in the Mediterranean Economy” (Cambridge, 2009). Before becoming dean, Holo was already wearing an administrator’s hat along with his scholar’s cap. He was director of the Louchheim School of Judaic Studies, which serves as the undergraduate program in Jewish studies for University of Southern California, whose campus is adjacent to HUC-JIR’s.

He is only the second non-rabbi to serve as Los Angeles campus dean. The first was Windmueller, his predecessor, an experienced Jewish communal professional turned professor. Holo’s job is to chart a course for HUC-JIR in Los Angeles so that it can best prepare future rabbis to lead the Reform movement in the future.

“Generation Xers are really coming into their own, and Generation Yers are right behind them,” said Rabbi John Rosove, senior rabbi of Temple Israel of Hollywood, who has close relationships with both Windmueller and Holo as friends and congregants. A self-described “aging boomer,” Rosove said the experiences that impacted him growing up — the assassinations of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr., the Civil Rights Movement, the Vietnam War and the three major Israeli-Arab wars between 1948 and 1973 — are similar to those that shaped Windmueller, who is 68.

But for Holo — and even more so for Holo’s students — those events are the stuff of history. “They don’t have any personal memories of any of these things, and their experience of Jewish identity will necessarily be very different,” Rosove said. “I’m kind of excited to see what their generation will bring to the American Jewish community going forward.”

Holo’s personal upbringing wasn’t in the Reform movement. The Southern California native grew up attending a Conservative synagogue and a non-denominational day school. He often views the future of Reform Judaism through the lens of his expertise in medieval Jewish history.

“One of his great skills is to understand the nature of the challenges that confront the contemporary Jewish community in light of the historical sweep of the entire Jewish panorama,” Rabbi David Ellenson, president of HUC-JIR, said of Holo. “He brings the perspective of the Jewish past to the present.”

This quality was very much on display during a recent interview. Even when Holo was ostensibly talking about relatively recent trends in the Jewish community — Reform Jews who are incorporating the traditional practice of keeping kosher, for one — the patient and soft-spoken historian consistently referred back to the distant past. At one point, he explained in depth the medieval-era schism between Karaites and Rabbinites. Today, every major Jewish denomination — including Reform Judaism — comes from the Rabbinite tradition. Karaites, whose practice is derived from the Bible alone, have all but disappeared. The citation, which seemed like a digression at first, turned out to be completely integral to Holo’s explanation. It was easy to understand, yet not oversimplified.

It’s no wonder then that Holo’s favorite perk as dean is being able to ask the researchers on campus to meet with him and talk to him about their current work. “It’s not a tenure checkup or anything like that,” he said.

“I’m in this building with this incredible brain trust, and I get to have an hour and a half with them and just get plugged into this world of Jewish learning,” Holo said. “It’s such a privilege.”

Reform College Cuts Might Lead to Campus Closures


Due to unprecedented financial distress, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) is poised to make deep cuts to its programming that might include the closure of two of its three U.S. campuses. HUC-JIR has campuses in Los Angeles, Cincinnati and New York, as well as a fourth location in Jerusalem, which annually cost about $40 million to operate.

The leading academic arm of the Reform movement, facing a $3 million deficit this year that could swell to $5 million next year, is weighing its options for surviving “the most challenging financial position it has faced in its history — even more so than during the Depression,” Rabbi David Ellenson, HUC-JIR’s president, wrote in a letter last week to the institute’s community.

“We are looking at the college-institute as a whole to see how it can continue to fulfill its mission while still being fiscally responsible,” Ellenson said in a telephone interview from New York, where he is based. “We have different scenarios. We are really in the midst of a process. Everything is possible.”

Flat donations, substantial endowment declines and burdensome pension liability payments have pushed HUC-JIR to a “fateful crossroads” requiring drastic structural change, he said.

One of several scenarios the college’s board of governors will discuss at a meeting May 3 is the closure of two campuses in the United States.

Founded in Cincinnati in 1875, Hebrew Union College merged with the Jewish Institute of Religion in 1950 and has since become the Reform movement’s central hub of higher education. The college will award 167 degrees nationally this year through its rabbinical, cantorial, education and Judaic studies programs, among others. The Los Angeles campus, which opened in 1971, currently serves 86 students and will ordain 15 rabbis in May.

Faculty members at the L.A. campus have sent a letter to Ellenson and other HUC-JIR leaders protesting the potential closure of the West Coast site. The campus should be kept open as part of any plan the college’s board approves because of its profitable relationship with its neighbor, the University of Southern California (USC), the letter states, according to the Los Angeles Times. The two schools share some faculty and facilities and cross-educate students.

“USC is prepared to open discussions about buying or leasing part or all of our property,” the letter reportedly says.

Rumors, first reported on The God Blog on jewishjournal.com, began to circulate last week that HUC-JIR’s L.A. campus and USC are working on a deal to fold the L.A. campus into USC as a Jewish studies program.

At the center of these rumors was Stanley Gold, chairman of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles and a past chair of the boards of directors at both schools.

But reached by phone in Paris on April 20, Gold, who is a member of the boards of both the HUC-JIR and USC, said he is not negotiating any sort of agreement.

“I really have a conflict of interest,” Gold said. “So I would not urge anything except for the two parties to get together and talk. USC values the HUC relationship very much, so I am sure at some point, if they are not already talking, they certainly will talk. But before there is a talk, HUC has to decide what it wants to do.”

HUC-JIR and USC have long offered joint academic programs — graduate students enrolled in the college’s Jewish Communal Service program can pursue joint master’s degrees through USC in social work, business administration, public administration or communications management. Officials at both schools already were discussing the idea of building a shared new facility on a part of HUC-JIR’s property as recently as January 2008.

Ellenson said it is too early to say whether the L.A. campus would be among those chosen for closure. “At this moment, I would not want to predict in any way,” he said. “Every campus is being examined.”

No campus is in danger of immediate closure, he added — any structural changes the board recommends in May would take at least two years to implement. Alternative scenarios propose consolidating programs but keeping more than one campus open, Ellenson wrote in the letter. A final decision is expected in late June.

Staff reductions, pay cuts and slashes to programming are occurring at institutions throughout the Reform movement, said Rabbi Larry Goldmark, executive director of the Pacific Association of Reform Rabbis (PARR).

“There is a lot of belt-tightening going on,” Goldmark said. “Even our large synagogues are not immune from this financial crisis.”

PARR’s approximately 300 member synagogues were set to adopt a resolution to “oppose every effort to close down HUC-JIR in Los Angeles” and commit to working with the college’s faculty and administration to keep the campus viable.

Closing HUC-JIR’s campus in Los Angeles — a city that has the country’s second-largest Jewish population — would be a “terribly short-sighted decision with negative ramifications for generations to come,” said Rabbi Steven Leder of Wilshire Boulevard Temple.

Rabbi John Rosove, senior rabbi at Temple Israel of Hollywood, said the loss would stunt an important locale for Reform Jewish advancement.

“I’m concerned that the American Reform movement would lose something significant if the campus has to close,” said Rosove, who was ordained at HUC-JIR in 1979. “Some of the most creative things are happening on the West Coast,” including innovative social justice and education initiatives.

The closure of two HUC-JIR campuses would be “radical surgery,” and the college board should do what it can to avoid it, he said.

“If it weren’t for the current economic environment, we would not have moved in this direction,” Ellenson said by phone. “Change is always painful.”

HUC-JIR’s board of governors in March approved $5.8 million in cost-cutting measures for the college’s 2009-2010 budget, including a tuition increase of $3,000 per full-time student — bringing tuition to $19,000 — and a reduction of at least $1 million in salary and benefit costs by trimming positions from HUC-JIR staff. Pay cuts were also approved across the board, including a 10 percent salary reduction for Ellenson, eight percent cuts for the vice presidents and provost, and five percent reductions for almost all other employees.

The cuts were meant to alleviate losses in revenue tied to a 20 percent slash in dues collected from the country’s 900 Reform synagogues, which cost HUC-JIR $2.5 million to $3 million, according to an earlier letter Ellenson sent out to the community. He added that several of the college’s endowment funds are now “underwater” and HUC-JIR will have to make significantly higher payments on its devalued pension plan over the next five years. The current state of the college’s general fund is “sobering, if not bleak,” he wrote.

Ellenson said the proposals to streamline HUC-JIR’s programs would help the institution weather the economic crisis.

“The key element is for HUC-JIR to maintain its mission of providing Jewish leadership for the Jewish community of North America, Israel and throughout the world,” he said. “That transcends any given locale.” 

Rachel Heller is a contributing writer and Brad A. Greenberg is a senior writer for The Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles.

Torah that moves


Jews debate everything.This is especially true for Jews who study biblical texts. Over the millennia, Jews have never stopped dissecting and debating the multiple layers of meanings of the written and oral Torah to arrive at deeper truths.The vision of a chevruta — two Jews, sitting across from each other, arguing over minute details — is an icon of the Jewish intellectual experience. There is one thing, however, that is rarely challenged or debated: the sitting position.

No, I’m not kidding. I went to an event the other day where it was suggested that to gain a deeper understanding of Jewish texts, it helps to get up and move.

This was not one of those weird holistic movements where Buddhist Jews might teach transcendental meditation while moving to Bob Marley music or the sound of hummingbirds. No, this came from a serious, respectful approach to Jewish study.

In fact, I was surrounded by professors and graduate students. The person to my left was a professor of Jewish studies who is working on a book on the ba’al teshuvah movement, and across from me was the dean of a major Jewish college.

We were there, a group of about 30 men and women, with most of the men wearing kippahs, to experience a relatively new idea called “Moving Torah.”

The “performer” was a modestly dressed Jewish woman in her early 40s named Andrea Hodos, an artist-in-residence at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR), and we met in one of their conference rooms as part of their “Lunch and Learn” series. Hodos came to enlighten us on “the power of the body to think and the mind to move.”

The body to think? The mind to move?

If my ancestors in Marrakesh could see me now!

Hodos knew she would transport us to an unfamiliar world, so she started by drawing us into it. She asked us, for example: “How do you think movement and theater might add to the experience of Jewish texts and Jewish identity?” and “How would this be different than visual art?”

At the end of her introduction, Hodos took a deep breath, lowered her voice and asked this question: “What would it take to imagine yourself as a performer?”

Before we had time to squirm, she began telling us her story — through words and precise, graceful movements.

Trained as a dancer in her youth, in her early 20s she finds herself in Israel, falls in love with Torah study, struggles to reconcile her feminist ideals with her Jewish tradition, learns Torah all day at the Pardes Institute, and then, one night, during the first Gulf War as Scud missiles are falling on Tel Aviv and she is in the middle of an all-night study session, she gets an itch.

An itch to get up and move.

For the next few years, she engages in a delicate dance between her past and her future — her past as a dancer who loves to move, and her future as a Jew who loves to learn.

As Hodos moves her story along, literally, it becomes harder to separate her movements from her words — they seem to flow into each other.

But this mini “Who Am I?” is just an appetizer for the piece de resistance, the thing we all came to see: How do you make the Torah move?

For the next 30 minutes, Hodos takes us on a journey of dancing with Jewish texts. She plays a video where she performs, with another woman, one of her favorite passages of Pirkei Avot — “Turn it over and turn it over for everything is in it” — and shows us how it comes to life through the stark, dramatic movement of two human bodies.

Then, having slowly and gently lured us into her web, she goes for broke and “performs” a dvar Torah on Parshat Terumah.

By now, she is speaking words I might hear from any pulpit rabbi on a Shabbat morning. She recounts the story of God giving instructions to Moses for the building of the mishkan (sanctuary), asks a few questions — and then makes connections.

The connection I best remember relates to the curtains on either side of the sanctuary — which are a metaphor for the many layers between us and God. We need these layers, Hodos explained, as she imagined billowing curtains through her flowing movements. These layers keep us at a healthy distance from the Almighty, encouraging awe and humility; remind us that we need the layers of talmudic interpretations and our own intellectual struggle to get closer to God; and, finally, keep us from the arrogance that can lead to another Golden Calf, lest we think we’ve got it all figured out.

I could have heard this kind of Torah at any synagogue, but at HUC-JIR that day, I didn’t just hear it. I saw it, experienced it and felt it — I saw how the interplay of words and movement can add new layers of meaning.

But more importantly, I remembered it.

That may not seem like a big deal, but think of the last time you heard a sermon or dvar Torah, whether it was a week, a month or a year ago. Honestly: Do you remember what the message was? Do you remember taking any “billowing curtains” home with you to guide you on your life’s journey?

If you ask me, I think Hodos is onto something. I hear she’s even thinking of giving seminars for rabbis and students of all stripes who are open to using physical movement to deepen their Torah experience.

I can just see it now. Rabbis in the hood and all over the country “performing” their weekly sermons; using gestures designed with a Talmudic precision to add new meaning to a word or phrase; walking around rather than standing still; moving their heads and bodies in unique ways to help their insights resonate and create memorable images.

Sure, it all sounds weird and way out there.

But so what? I just love that there are Jews out there who are always trying to enhance the Jewish experience — Jews, God bless them, who teach us that if we want the Torah to move us, sometimes we just have to move with it.

David Suissa, an advertising executive, is founder of OLAM magazine and Meals4Israel.com. He can be reached at dsuissa@olam.org.

Half a Century on Reform’s Frontlines


When the Reform movement published its new “Mishkan T’filah” last November, the prayer book looked comfortably familiar to Reform rabbinic students in Los Angeles. It was clear to them that a homemade siddur they had created for their own use had influenced the first official prayer book published by the Union for Reform Judaism since 1975.

Once again, the L.A. branch of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) had made its mark on the Reform movement. The new, official prayer book, like the homemade siddur, includes traditional prayers in Hebrew, as well as new alternative readings and meditations — changes in keeping with Reform’s adoption of more traditional practices.

The Los Angeles campus was created 50 years ago in classrooms at Wilshire Boulevard Temple by founders who understood that the intellectual center of Judaism would be pulled inevitably westward.

“The leaders who founded the Los Angeles campus began to realize there would be a tremendous growth spurt of the Jewish population in Southern California and the entire Western states,” said Lewis Barth, dean of HUC-JIR in Los Angeles, who was among the first students at the new campus in 1954. “The majority of our graduates come back to serve congregations and Jewish communal institutions in the Western states, and have been leaders of transforming Jewish life here.”

Barth’s early classmates included Stephen S. Wise Temple’s Rabbi Isaiah Zeldin; Wilshire Boulevard Temple’s Rabbi Harvey Fields and Rabbi Alfred Wolf; Leo Baeck Temple’s Rabbi Sanford Ragins; and other pioneers of the Los Angeles Jewish community.

While those rabbis had to go to the New York or Cincinnati campuses to be ordained, four years ago the Los Angeles campus began ordaining rabbis, and the move has meant tremendous growth for the school. Course offerings have doubled, as has enrollment, with graduating classes in the rabbinic school growing from about eight to 10 students per year to 15 or 20.

Today, HUC-JIR Los Angeles sits at the edge of the USC campus, south of downtown. The schools enjoy a symbiotic relationship, with some 650 USC undergraduates taking Judaic studies classes at HUC-JIR and graduate students able to take part in a joint program in communal service. HUC-JIR has highly regarded graduate schools of Jewish education, Jewish communal service and Jewish studies.

The school is also home to innovative programs, including institutes on Judaism and health, Sephardic studies and sexual orientation. Hebrew and day school teachers can receive special training at HUC, and the school pioneered a program to train liberal mohels to perform brises.

Among Jewish colleges, the Los Angeles HUC-JIR campus has a reputation for creativity and innovation, said Rabbi Richard Levy, director of the School of Rabbinic Studies. The student body and faculty have been integral in Reform’s evolution toward traditional observance, Levy added.

See insets for graduating students’ thoughts on the future of the Reform movement.

 

Day School for Reform Jews, Too


The idea that a significant number of American Jewish children would come to attend Jewish day schools would have seemed unimaginable no more than 40 years ago, and the notion that thousands from Reform Jewish homes would attend such schools would have seemed even more fantastic. After all, the public school was the major institution that facilitated the entry of upwardly mobile immigrant Jews and their children into American life throughout the major part of the 20th century.

For the overwhelming majority of these Jews, loyalty to this school system was an absolute article of faith. And for Reform Jews, as for others, devotion to the public school system was a sign of fidelity to the United States. During most of that period, the exclusive norm for Reform Jewish education was the after-school or weekend religious school.

Much has changed since those years. Reform Jews, like so many others, have embraced practices and displayed attitudes regarding a number of areas of Jewish tradition that would have been unthinkable decades earlier. The reasons for these changes are many. Foremost among them is that the American Jewish community is no longer predominantly an immigrant one, and traditional barriers that formerly discriminated against Jews have all but been completely destroyed. Jews have become full and accepted participants in every sector of American life.

On one level, this means that the public schools are no longer required in order to facilitate Jewish entry into American society. On a deeper level, we would point out that public expressions of ethnic pride and religious commitment are applauded in ways that would not have been possible in earlier decades. The complex shoals of an ethically unsure American landscape and an excessively individualistic American society where traditional roots of identity are shallow and where traditional religious-moral values are frequently called into question are the new challenges facing American Jews. Many Jewish parents, and we include ourselves, feel that an intense exposure for our children to the ethical-cultural-religious-national heritage that is Judaism constitutes an invaluable and unparalleled resource for educating and preparing our children for participation in a pluralistic and constantly changing and expanding world.

Viewed from this perspective, Jewish day school education does not reflect a lack of allegiance to the United States. Nor need such education embody a narrow particularistic exultation of Jewish tradition.

Instead, Reform day school education indicates that a significant number of liberal Jewish parents now regard our tradition as a precious source that will allow our children to anchor and explore their personal and communal identity as Jews in a meaningful way. Such education permits many of us as parents to express our confidence that the values and teachings of Jewish tradition that our children will learn from a liberal Jewish perspective in such schools will cause our children to contribute as Jews to the American public square in an authentic liberal Jewish voice.

The creation of an ever-growing network of more than 20 North American Reform Jewish day schools that educates thousands of Reform Jewish youngsters — as well as the decision made by hundreds if not thousands more Reform Jewish parents to send their children either to Jewish day schools under community auspices or to Solomon Schechter schools — indicates that a growing number of Reform Jewish parents resonate to the motifs and concerns we have outlined here.

We recognize that most Reform Jewish parents will unquestionably continue to send their children to afterschool Hebrew and religious school programs, and we affirm the worth and importance that must be assigned these schools. Indeed, initiatives at our Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) Schools of Education in both Los Angeles and New York are helping congregations reimagine their congregational schools and the educational leadership required to guide these schools to meet the challenges confronting today’s children and their families.

At the same time, we are delighted that increasing numbers of Reform Jews are choosing the day school option for their children, and we would urge more to do so. Our hope is that larger numbers of Reform and other liberal American Jews will regard an intense encounter with Judaism as a desirable option for their children in a multicultural world, and that these same parents will understand that such an encounter does not represent a retreat from the larger world.

In an open American society that thankfully embraces Jews so warmly, we do not believe that there is any simple panacea to the challenges that confront the creation of a vibrant Jewish community. Nevertheless, we would submit that the insight provided in the Talmud is a recipe for meaningful Jewish life and ongoing Jewish commitment and values.

If we educate our children in schools that allow for optimal exposure to Judaism, we will foster their maturation as knowledgeable and serious liberal Jews.

We know already that such day schools succeed. A number of studies shows that graduates of liberal day schools over the past 20 years play a disproportionate role in the leadership of every sector of our community – Hillels, synagogues, Israel advocacy groups and federations.

We are confident that more such day school children, along with others, will one day be the guarantors of a Reform Judaism that is vital and inclusive, a liberal Judaism that will address and attract broad numbers of Jewish adults and their children, and that will inspire both Jews and non-Jews in the highest and most humane values of our tradition.

Article reprinted courtesy The Jewish Week.


David Ellenson is president and professor of Jewish Religious Thought at HUC-JIR. Michael Zeldin is professor of Jewish education at HUC-JIR, Los Angeles, and was recently appointed director of Day School Initiatives.

A Jewish World Without Denominations


A new president of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) was inaugurated in a moving ceremony held Oct. 13 in the ornate Plum Street Temple in downtown Cincinnati. Rabbi David Ellenson, a native of Newport News, Va., and a long-time resident of Los Angeles, spoke from the pulpit of this classic Moorish-style temple about the unique challenges of leading an American rabbinical seminary into the 21st century.

On one level, Ellenson seems to be an odd choice to lead the Reform rabbinical seminary. He is more a scholar than an administrator or fundraiser, more a teacher than a pulpit rabbi. But even more significantly, Ellenson defies denominational classification: born and raised in an Orthodox home, he has written extensively on Modern Orthodoxy, with particular interest in the role of halachic response in shaping its contours. Along with his wife, Jackie, who is also a rabbi, he spent many years in Los Angeles as a pillar of the Library Minyan of Conservative Temple Beth Am. And for nearly three decades, he has been a professor at the Reform HUC-JIR.

The audience assembled at the Plum Street Temple was unperturbed by Ellenson’s denominational eclecticism. Rather, they took ample note of the new president’s erudition, as well as his legendary kindness and compassion. A smaller number of cognoscenti also marveled at the historical journey of the Reform movement in the United States.

To illustrate the point, a brief digression to culinary history is in order. In 1883, the first class of rabbinical ordinees graduated from the HUC-JIR. The festive ceremony that marked the occasion, the first ordination of any rabbinical seminary in the United States, was held in the same Plum Street, or Bene Yeshurun, Temple.

Following the ceremony, a gala dinner was held that drew representatives from more than 100 synagogues across the country. Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise, the founder of the 8-year-old Union of American Hebrew Congregations and president of its HUC-JIR, had hoped to forge a broad congregational association that would unite all of American Judaism under one roof, and indeed, more than half of the nation’s 200-odd synagogues were on board.

That dream ended with dinner. The meal commenced with half-shell clams, proceeded to soft-shell crabs and shrimp salad, as well as a number of kosher meats, before concluding with an ice cream dessert. Unprepared for such an "innovative menu," the more traditional rabbis abruptly fled from what has come to be known in the annals of American Jewish history as the "Treifa Banquet." The unintended legacy was the hardening of ideological divisions into denominational wings as we know them.

Nearly 120 years later, the invited guests of Ellenson’s inauguration party were treated to a thoroughly kosher dinner under strict rabbinical supervision. These two meals — the Treifa and the Kosher Banquets — stand as intriguing markers of the significant shifts that Reform — and American — Judaism have undergone.

Before the Treifa Banquet, the denominational boundaries of an emerging American Jewry were hardly visible. During the next century, these boundaries became reinforced as the four main denominations each built seminaries, synagogues, congregational organizations, youth movements and schools to embody their respective messages.

But today, these borders seem to be eroding. Ellenson symbolizes that erosion in his own varied Jewish biography. So, too, does the fact that his institution recently awarded honorary doctorates to Rabbi Ismar Schorsh, chancellor of the Conservative Jewish Theological Seminary, and Rabbi Emanuel Rackman, former chancellor of the Orthodox-sponsored Bar-Ilan University. For many decades, it would have been unimaginable that an Orthodox rabbi like Rackman would have accepted a doctorate from HUC-JIR. But having reached more than four score and 10 years, Rackman is so distinguished, wise and courageous as to deliberately and openly rise above denominational differences.

His example suggests that there may well be more that unites than separates the various constituents of American Judaism. This is particularly true when we observe that American Jewry may be shrinking at a marked clip, at least according to the recent National Jewish Population Survey. This is also true when we notice the growing trend toward increased observance in all of the denominations, including the Reform movement. The Kosher Banquet of 2002 is but one link in a chain of growing traditionalism that defines American Jewish religious identity in the new century.

For some, this development is cause for joy. And yet, we must also recall that drift and alienation from organized Jewish life continue, in part because denominational packaging no longer appeals to a growing number of hungry, spiritual consumers.

The intriguing transformations of the Reform movement, as symbolized by the presidency of Ellenson, should prompt a probing debate about the role and relevance of denominations in American Judaism of the 21st century. So, too, should the current struggles to chart a coherent course for American Orthodoxy — as reflected in the difficulty in finding a successor to Yeshiva University’s long-time president, Rabbi Norman Lamm, who has skillfully mediated the demands of being a college president and rosh yeshiva. In fact, all the American Jewish denominations must now ask themselves whether their considerable, but ultimately limited, resources are better utilized in preserving their own institutions or joining forces to confront the challenging days ahead.

Michael Berenbaum is director of the Sigi Ziering Institute at the University of Judaism. David N. Myers is a professor of Jewish history at UCLA.

The Big Win


In a week that began with tragic news, there was one unalloyed cause for celebration: on Tuesday, Rabbi David H. Ellenson was named president of Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR). This, as they say, is huge: for Ellenson, for Reform Jewry, for Los Angeles.

Ellenson is a widely respected scholar and a much-loved teacher. As news spread of his appointment, one elated former student said, “My image of him is this wonderful teacher in his cardigan and his beard sitting on a desk in front of the class — and now he’s the president!”

Rabbi Lewis Barth, dean of HUC-JIR’s Los Angeles school, was equally ecstatic. “This is great news for HUC and the Reform movement and Jewish life,” he said.

HUC-JIR’s board of governors voted unanimously for Ellenson, 54, who was ordained by HUC in 1977 and received a Ph.D. from Columbia University. The Reform seminary, which has campuses in Cincinnati, New York, Jerusalem and Los Angeles, trains rabbis, cantors, educators, communal professionals and academics.

For weeks now, it was known that Ellenson was one of two leading candidates for the post, along with legal activist Uri Regev, a leader of the Reform movement in Israel. Regev was the first Israeli-born rabbi to be ordained at HUC’s Jerusalem campus. An attorney, he is a passionate spokesman for religious freedom in Israel and a prodigious fundraiser for the movement’s Israel Religious Action Center.

“Uri is an activist and a hero of the Jewish people,” Ellenson told me. Regev also happens to be Ellenson’s best friend.

In choosing Ellenson, the seminary leaders reached for an academic of sterling credentials and a teacher of depth and vision.

Ellenson was appointed following the very public resignation of Rabbi Sheldon Zimmerman, who stepped down from the HUC-JIR presidency last year after the Reform rabbinical association suspended him for undisclosed sexual improprieties.

At 1.5 million members, Reform Jews comprise America’s largest synagogue movement. It has also been a movement in transition, looking to incorporate more traditional approaches to ritual observance but also breaking ground in outreach to intermarried couples and gays and lesbians.

In light of this, Ellenson seems an inspired choice. His scholarship and practice — his very being — cut across denominational lines. A professor of Jewish religious thought at the Reform movement’s seminary, he grew up Orthodox in Newport News, Va., and attends services at the Conservative Temple Beth Am as well as at Reform synagogues Leo Baeck Temple and Temple Emanuel; he teaches at Hebrew University and the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, as well as at the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary.

He is the author of several acclaimed books that illuminate the development of Jewish denominations, including seminal works on Orthodoxy. He is currently co- authoring, with Rabbi Daniel Gordis, a book tentatively titled “For the Sake of Heaven: Conversion, Identity and the Politics of Modern Jewish Orthodoxy.” Ellenson has lectured at Bar Ilan University in Israel, as well as at Harvard and Yale.

Now, of course, his job description is altered. “Life will change radically,” he said. Along with devoting himself to administration and development of an enterprise with an estimated $20 million annual budget, Ellenson will shape the next generations of Reform rabbis.

Needless to say, he envisions a Jewish future whose denominational lines are more permeable. “The question,” he said, “is how do we regenerate Judaism and make it vital for individuals who are indifferent to it, yet continue to foster people who are engaged in the ongoing Jewish renaissance?” Though committed to Reform’s philosophy, he has the breadth and experience to undertake the kind of cross-pollination that a new generation of Jews sees as its prerogative.

What makes this selection even sweeter is Ellenson’s attachment to Los Angeles. Ellenson’s wife, Rabbi Jacqueline Koch Ellenson, is chaplain at the Harvard-Westlake School. Their children Ruth, Micha, Hannah, Naomi and Raphael are the products of L.A. Jewish life (Ruth is also a contributing writer to The Journal).

Ellenson said the selection committee did not make moving to New York or Cincinnati a condition of his tenure, and the family will decide on whether to stay or move sometime next year.

In fact, Ellenson is the second local HUC professor to be elevated to the top post. Rabbi Alfred Gottschalk, who taught in Los Angeles from 1958-1971, preceded Zimmerman in the presidency. “It’s one thing to come from L.A.; it’s another thing to be able to remain in L.A.,” said Rabbi Lawrence Goldmark, former president of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California. “This says a great deal about L.A. and the quality of the professors here.”

Without reading too much into the choice, it’s fair to say it shifts more attention to the vitality of this community. “The fact is,” Ellenson said, “L.A. is a Jewish cultural center.” Would his selection reaffirm that? “I don’t see how it would hurt it,” he said.

Ellenson was at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport last Monday evening, getting ready to board a flight home, when he received a call from selection committee member Fred Lane. Lane told him to return immediately to the O’Hare Airport Hilton where the group had been meeting. Once there, Ellenson was informed that the post was his.

His initial reaction? “I thought it’s a sacred task that’s been imposed. Hopefully it will be a way for me to do good for Am Yisrael.”

125 and Still Growing


It’s been a landmark year for the four-campus seminary serving Reform Judaism, which has been celebrating its 125th anniversary since last September.

And it’s a time of growth and new visibility for the 47-year-old Los Angeles campus of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR), which is expanding its faculty and course offerings and will ordain rabbis for the first time a year from now.

This Sunday, HUC-JIR’s Los Angeles school will celebrate the seminary’s 125 years with a day of study, song, and partying. Along with the school’s resident faculty, the featured teacher will be Rabbi Lawrence Kushner, author of many books on Jewish symbolism and spirituality and rabbi-in-residence at HUC-JIR’s New York campus.

The public is invited to the celebration, which includes lunch, workshops, a musical presentation by local Reform cantors and cantorial soloists, and birthday cake.

"This is an exciting time for the College-Institute and the community," said Dr. Lewis M. Barth, dean of HUC-JIR’s Los Angeles school.

Hebrew Union College, the oldest rabbinical seminary in the United States, has come a long way since Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise gathered 17 teenaged boys in the basement of a Cincinnati synagogue in 1875 and began to train them for the rabbinate. The school’s first library, locked away every night in a box to protect it from mice, contained 103 books. Today, the libraries at the four HUC-JIR campuses hold a total of more than 700,000 volumes.

In 1950, HUC, by then long established on a stately Cincinnati campus, merged with the liberal Jewish Institute of Religion in New York. The merger gave Reform Judaism a New York center for training rabbis and cantors.

The Los Angeles school was founded in 1954 in response to the growing presence of Jewish communities and Reform synagogues along the West Coast. In 1963, HUC-JIR established a campus in Jerusalem, mainly as a center for biblical and archeological research, but it is now the school at which all Reform rabbinical, cantorial, and education students spend their first years of study, and it began ordaining rabbis in the 1980s.

Since its inception, HUC-JIR has ordained more than 2,500 Reform rabbis, and it has invested close to 400 cantors since its School of Sacred Music opened in 1948.

Similarly, the Los Angeles school has come a long way since its early years on Appian Way in the Hollywood Hills, when classes met in a big house on a wooded lot with a drained pool in the back and a refrigerator for a library.

Based a block from the University of Southern California since 1970, HUC-JIR/LA houses the oldest school of Jewish communal service in the United States and one of the nation’s premier training centers for Jewish educators. After many years of offering rabbinical training only through the third year, the Los Angeles campus this year has fourth-year students, who are on track to be ordained in Los Angeles in May 2002.

"We’ve been very excited this year to finally have a fourth-year class," said Rabbi Richard Levy, dean of the rabbinical school, "and to begin with them the journey of increased exploration of our texts, our history, and our tradition that comes with the final two years of rabbinical study."

Dr. William Cutter, professor of education and Hebrew at the campus since 1965, said that there were "legitimate budgetary concerns" that kept HUC-JIR from expanding the Los Angeles rabbinical program through ordination but that the administrators "worked slowly and lengthily … toward fuller standing."

Over the years, Cutter said, "the California school made itself look a little less like a West Coast outpost and more like a full partner."

To Prof. Sara Lee, director of the Rhea Hirsch School of Education, however, the prospect of ordination next year simply adds to the luster of a campus that already contains two flagship schools for Jewish professionals.

"While it’s true that this campus was not an ordaining campus, [the education and communal service] schools give to the Los Angeles campus a national presence in the larger Jewish community," Lee said. "Of course, what the decision on ordination means is that same national importance is accorded to the rabbinical program as well."

To date, more than 450 men and women have graduated from the Irwin Daniels School of Communal Service, 160 of whom have positions in the Southern California Jewish community, and the Hirsch school has granted degrees to 260 Jewish educators.

Plans are also under discussion for building a full cantorial program at the Los Angeles school. "The national administration of HUC-JIR, as well as the leadership of the UAHC, is very interested in the development of the sacred music program here at the Los Angeles campus," Barth told The Journal.

Dr. Norman Cohen, provost and acting president of all four HUC-JIR campuses, told The Journal that while there is no target date for establishing a full cantorial program in Los Angeles, the College-Institute is "committed to expanding offerings," possibly as early as this fall.

HUC-JIR/LA also houses the Edgar F. Magnin School of Graduate Studies, which offers advanced degrees in Judaic studies, and the Jerome H. Louchheim School of Judaic Studies, which provides courses in Jewish studies to USC undergraduates.

Several Los Angeles administrators mentioned HUC-JIR/LA’s relationship with USC, which includes a joint master’s in social work program with the Daniels School, as a major factor in the school’s growth.

They also credit Barth, who began his second stint as dean of the Los Angeles campus in 1997. "He brought a new energy to the campus," Lee said, adding that he is largely responsible for attracting new young faculty and new lay supporters to the school and lauding "the excitement of his leadership and his vision for the school."

"We’re in very good spirits," Cutter said.

HUC-JIR/LA’s 125th birthday celebration will be held Sun., April 22, 10:15 a.m.-3 p.m., 3077 University Ave. (corner of Hoover and 32nd streets). Registration opens at 9:30 a.m. The $12 fee includes lunch and materials. For more information, call (213) 749-3424, ext. 4205.

The Man Behind a Quiet Revolution


Rabbi Richard Levy was in Reform rabbinical school the first time he attended a traditional morning minyan. It was a requirement for his liturgy class, but for Levy, who some 35 years later is one of the most influential Reform rabbis in the country, it became much more.

“I found that I loved it. I bought my first tallis at the synagogue where we davened, and the pair of tefilin that I still use,” says Levy.

By the end of his first year at HUC in Cincinnati, Levy was well on his way to keeping kosher, to wearing a kippah full-time and to observing a traditional Shabbat.

Levy, along with his wife Carol, became what some might view a walking contradiction, but what history would prove was actually the future of Reform Judaism: a firm believer in the Reform ideology of personal choice and an evolving Judaism, who also observed many of the rituals long thought to be solely in the domain of the more traditional denominations.

“God didn’t give the mitzvot at Sinai, some to Reform Jews, some to Conservative Jews, some to Orthodox Jews,” says Levy, 62. “The whole of the Torah was given to the Jewish people.”

That kind of thinking comes through in the Pittsburgh Principles, Levy’s brainchild, a document the rabbinic arm of the Reform movement passed a few months ago, under Levy’s presidency. The statement opens up “the whole array of mitzvot” to Reform Judaism, which historically rejected many rituals and mitzvot as antiquated and irrelevant.

Levy, soft-spoken and unassuming, shepherded this quiet revolution in American Judaism’s largest movement from its premise through its passage. Reform leaders from around the country lauded Levy’s work in guiding the extensive and often raucous revision process, which involved hundreds of rabbis.

If his impact on the national scene has been broad and deeply felt, it is about to become more immediate and quantifiable on a local scale. After spending 24 years as executive director of the Los Angeles Hillel Council, Levy recently became the director of the rabbinical school at the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles, which will soon begin to ordain rabbis.

Rabbi Sheldon Zimmerman, national president of HUC-JIR, says the decision to allow students to complete their studies in Los Angeles, rather than having to move to New York or Cincinnati, is a reflection of the burgeoning significance of the Reform movement in the Western states.

And, he says, Rabbi Levy, along with Dean Lewis Barth and Provost Norman Cohen, can make this program work.

“As a person who has worked with college students in the past, Rabbi Levy understands their needs and aspirations and knows how to recruit them,” Zimmerman says.

“His impact is already being felt on the campus as students gravitate to him naturally for both matters having to do with their course of study and because he is an extraordinary counselor, mentor and mensch,” Barth says.

Levy says he plans to tap into the array of professional schools at the Los Angeles campus — from education to Jewish communal service — to create an integrated approach to the rabbinate.

“Too often the academic, spiritual and professional elements are seen as isolated,” Levy says. But a more holistic approach can “deepen the spiritual experience of the rabbinical students so they can help other people deepen their own spiritual lives.”

One way he plans to do that is through a Shabbat minyan at HUC, which will also be a testing ground for the new Reform prayerbook, due out in a few years. Levy, who edited a Haggadah, High Holiday prayer book and Shabbat prayerbook, all published by KTAV and Hillel, is on the editorial committee for the new Reform prayer book as well.

“The book will have both creative examples of prayer and it will restore some of the prayers which have been missing from Reform prayer books for 100 or so years,” he says.

That dualism — innovation and appreciation for tradition — is very much at the heart of Levy’s Reform Judaism.

Levy says he knew he wanted to be a rabbi from the time of his bar mitzvah in suburban New York. He is intellectually honest, refusing to give pat, dogmatic answers about his complex beliefs.

He regards the Torah as divine, but believes critical scholarship is essential. He views ritual as meaningful but not mandatory.

“God is revealed through history and through time, through text and through our experience and our prayer. If we are open to it we can be parties to ongoing revelation,” he says.

And now while Levy is best known for his push for tradition, he is also a great innovator, one who pushes for social action and equality for women.

Both Richard and Carol are staunch supporters of liberal Judaism and social action. Richard spent a night in jail in St. Augustine, Florida, during the civil rights movement, two weeks after he was ordained. They joke that one of their first dates was attending a Soviet Jewry rally. The two have often taught together, and for 15 years ran an experimental, egalitarian minyan in their home.

“I think both of us care deeply about the future of the Jewish community, and what shape it will take for the future. Both of us have devoted our lives to thinking about these issue and working on small solutions toward a larger answer,” says Carol.

Carol, who was once a professional singer, appearing on Broadway and in commercials, recently became assistant campaign director of the Los Angeles Jewish Federation, after serving for several years as executive director at the American Jewish Congress.

She is as gregarious as he is quiet, as flamboyant as he is understated, but the two do not fall neatly on either side of the intellectual/creative divide.

Richard has written poetry, was editor of the Harvard Crimson, and Carol has taught at Brandeis-Bardin on topics as diverse as women’s ritual, the environment, tzedakah and Jewish communal structures.

“Richard is more than the intellectual, spiritual guide people see him as, and I am way beyond the vivacious cheerleader that people see,” Carol says.

They are each other’s mentors, and have taught their two daughters, Sarah, a teacher in New York, and Elizabeth, a student at the University of Chicago, to live by a guiding principle.

“What the individual does makes a difference,” Richard says. “It’s important to act on what we believe in because we really do mentor for other people. If we are not afraid of doing new things and trying to change things, we usually find there are unnamed numbers of people who are waiting for somebody like you to take a step, and they will join you.”