Photo courtesy of Women of the Wall.

Reform leaders call on Netanyahu to denounce Western Wall body searches of female rabbinical students

Leaders of the Reform movement in the United States called on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to “issue a swift and clear denunciation” of the demeaning body searches of four female rabbinic students at the Western Wall.

The students from the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, including two Americans, on Wednesday were asked to lift their shirts and skirts for security before being allowed to enter the Western Wall plaza, where an egalitarian prayer service was being held. The four said they were questioned and pulled aside into a private room.

“These bold young leaders were treated in the most degrading way imaginable,” said the Reform letter to Netanyahu dated Aug. 24. “They were pulled out of line among hundreds of men and women and were subject to a completely unnecessary search. The actions of the Western Wall Heritage Fund go beyond the disagreement we have about the implementation of a compromise at the Kotel. This was an unacceptable and shameful attempt to hurt and humiliate our leaders, and we are deeply outraged.”

The letter was signed by Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism; Rabbi Aaron Panken, president of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion; and Rabbi Steven Fox, chief executive of the Central Conference of American Rabbis.

Western Wall security did not say what they were looking for, according to the Israel Religious Action Center of the Reform movement, or IRAC. Western Wall officials in the past have detained women and searched for Torah scrolls and other religious items they consider inappropriate for women to bring to the wall.

In January, Israel’s High Court of Justice ruled that women are not to be subjected to intense body searches when entering the Western Wall.

“Our goal with our young leadership is to cultivate a love and a commitment to Israel,” the letter also said. “We will continue to struggle for justice and work to create an Israel we can be proud of. The actions of the personnel at the Kotel yesterday morning only continue to make our work extremely difficult.

“Please issue a swift and clear denunciation of the events that took place yesterday,” it concluded.

Hebrew Union College names Rabbi Aaron Panken as new president

Rabbi Aaron Panken was elected president of The Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, the Reform movement’s rabbinical school.

HUC announced the decision of its board of governors on Wednesday.

Panken, 49, of Mamaroneck, N.Y., has taught rabbinic and Second Temple literature at HUC-JIR in New York since 1995. He has served as vice president for strategic initiatives, dean of the New York campus and dean of students.

As president, Panken will serve as the chief executive officer of HUC’s four campuses — in Cincinnati, Jerusalem, Los Angeles and New York.

Panken, the 12th president in HUC’s 138-year history, succeeds Rabbi David Ellenson, who served from 2001 to 2013 and is becoming chancellor.

“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. “Our mission is to help our students grow into authentic Jewish thought leaders, able to articulate and advance their own visions of a rich Jewish life for a new and rapidly changing religious landscape.”

Panken was ordained by HUC in New York in 1991. An alumnus of the Wexner Graduate Fellowship, he earned his doctorate in Hebrew and Judaic studies at New York University, where his research focused on legal change in rabbinic literature.

He currently serves on the faculty for the Wexner Foundation and the editorial board of Reform Judaism magazine, and has served on the Rabbinical Placement Commission, the birthright Education Committee, the CCAR Ethics Committee, and in other leadership roles within the Reform movement.

“We are proud that Dr. Panken will be leading our institution,” Irwin Engelman, board chairman, and Martin Cohen, chair of the Presidential Search Committee, said in a joint statement.  “He is a distinguished rabbi and scholar, dedicated teacher, and committed leader of the Reform Movement for more than three decades.”

Community Profile: Gerald Bubis

Gerald B. Bubis is 88, and he knows there are things he’ll never do again.

He’ll never travel to Israel again, for one, and after 46 trips, that’s a tough one to swallow. Then there’s the fact that this author and/or editor of 12 books and 200 articles on serving the Jewish community now has a tremor in his hand that prevents him from putting pen to paper. He also can’t drive anymore, and he can’t stand up long enough to wash dishes.

Despite all this, he’s not frail, and the clarity and wisdom he still possesses have provided him the blessing of being able to ponder how he wants to approach this late stage of life.

“I think of this more as a condition than as a stage,” Bubis said, sitting in an armchair in the living room of his Beverlywood condo. “This is the first time in your life you’re confronting the fact that this is really the end of the physical stage, and that’s different. Because there is this notion of it being Dec. 25 on the calendar, and it’s a matter of saying how will you spend that last week of your life.”

It’s a scenario the High Holy Days imposes on all worshippers, but for Bubis, as it is for many seniors, the question of what has filled his book of life and how it will close is not abstract, but an everyday reality.

He has made the decision that he will not allow himself room for regrets — neither about the past nor about what he can no longer do. Rather, he focuses on what he has accomplished and what he still can do. 

Bubis is the founding director of the School of Jewish Communal Service at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) and was an early and ardent advocate for peace with the Palestinians. He is recognized nationally as an elder statesman, both in the peace camp and in the world of Jewish professionals.

In his earlier years, Bubis, who is still a broad 6 feet tall, was probably called strapping. Now, his hearty eyebrows and booming voice both have taken on the qualities of old age, and he moves slowly, with a walker. His health issues are profound: He takes two dozen pills a day to deal with legs that barely work, heart trouble, high blood pressure and episodes of pain on one side of his face that are so debilitating the condition is referred to as suicidal neuralgia. He’s had three bouts with thyroid cancer, and a serious car accident in February exacerbated issues with his legs and left vision in one eye impaired.

But Bubis is well aware of the tendencies of his age cohort, so to a genuine query of, “How are you?” Bubis will begin his answer by setting himself a time limit to update the essentials, and he promises that he will then move on to more interesting conversation.

 “You can either sink into a morass of depression or feeling sorry for yourself, or you say it is what it is, it can’t be any different,” Bubis said. “The people I admire most are the people who confront their limits and cope with them in ways that say, I still have my life, and I still have my pleasures. I still have my challenges, and if one part of my body is diminished or extinguished or involves some kind of coping or adjusting, so be it. I can’t do anything about it, but what I will do about it is, I will say ‘hineni,’ here I am, and how do I go forward?”

Jerry and Ruby, his wife of 64 years, still go to concerts and lectures regularly; they get together with friends often, and they are close with their two children and three grandchildren. They study and socialize with a chavurah they have been part of for 35 years, and have been members of Valley Beth Shalom for decades, but their once weekly attendance has become more sporadic since the car accident.

And Jerry still works. He mentors and consults with Jewish professionals several times a week and reliably holds court at Pat’s on Pico, where the lunch waiters know to pack up half his salad at the outset and to bring him biscotti with the bill.

Because he can no longer write, he is considering looking for funding to hire someone to help him transcribe his words into articles.

He has volumes of anecdotes to share, and while he is careful about his listeners’ time and patience, it doesn’t take much goading for him to unleash dependably gripping stories about camping in Yosemite or personal encounters with King Hussein.

Bubis says he is at peace with where he is now, because he allows himself the satisfaction — but not the fiction — that his life has been lived well.

“To me, it’s a nourishing thing to know that this stage has grown from all those other stages. I have been lucky enough to go through all the stages there are — by way of love and marriage, children, professional fulfillment and accomplishment and recognition,” Bubis said.

That’s not to say it’s been perfect. He’s got an ego, and he can get angry, he said. He said he was for too long married to his work, and didn’t always give Ruby or the children the time he should have.  

“My regrets are of my failing as a father and as a mate in the early days of our marriage,” he said. Today he has a strong relationship with his son, David, who is vice president for development for Bet Tzedek Legal Services, and his daughter, Deena Libman, a development officer at the San Diego Jewish Federation. Both David and Deena were Bubis’ students in graduate school at HUC-JIR, and, like their father, both also were awarded honorary doctorates from HUC-JIR. 

Dwelling on what wasn’t accomplished is a sure road to unhappiness, Bubis advises.

“Making peace with what you have accomplished, and not judging yourself for what you didn’t accomplish, is to me a very important attribute, which I believe a lot of people never acquire, but rather they have this restless dissatisfaction, and maybe in some cases depression, about what they wished would have happened that didn’t happen,” Bubis said. “But you can only be what you are capable of being at the time that you are that.”

Jerry and Ruby built their life from modest beginnings.

Bubis grew up in Winnipeg, and his parents divorced when he was 11, after his father fled to the United States after being caught embezzling. Jerry, his mother and his sister moved to Minnesota, where they lived with his mother’s parents, Orthodox immigrants from Minsk. 

As a teenager, he split his time between the Talmud Torah at the Jewish community center and loitering around the streets, shoplifting and pulling pranks. He had a lot of anger, he admits, and says he once went at his mother with a butcher knife and tied his sister up in the closet.

But his maternal grandfather was a true role model. He was a quiet and kind small property owner who established a synagogue and Jewish free loan in Minnesota, and during the Depression he would secretly leave food and coal for his tenants.

“I’ve always had two birds on my shoulder — my father and my grandfather, and each influenced me in his own way,” Bubis said. “As a result of my father, I vowed that I would try to be a person with a good name. And as a result of my grandfather, I had a model of a person who had a good name.”

Bubis enlisted in the Army during World War II as a combat engineer and was trained to remove land mines. He was about to be deployed overseas when he was plucked from his unit and sent back to the camp in Oregon to train other soldiers. A few months later, his entire unit was killed in Italy.

With injured feet, Bubis was discharged with a disability pension that paid his way through college and social work school. Two months after he left the military, he met Ruby at a Manitoba-Minnesota Hillel event and was smitten immediately.

“Having the luck of having a mate, a partner, for so long is in itself an incredible gift, because we grew up together,” Bubis said, looking across the room, where Ruby sat on a loveseat that, like most of their furniture, is a family heirloom. “The love, for me, grows and grows, and it grows even as the nature of how we relate is different than when we were young. And, for me, having the luck of a person who is on the one hand always my supervisor and a goad for keeping me focused, and on the other hand has kept me from ballooning up about myself and puffery about myself, that to me has been a tremendous help.”

Ruby, also a social worker, helped resettle refugees after World War II and later helped settle Soviet Jews in Los Angeles. Jerry worked as a camp director and a Federation executive before he founded the School of Jewish Communal Service and then became a professor at HUC-JIR.

After his recent car accident, which left Bubis laid up for months, he was stunned at the love that began to flow from across the globe and from those close by — people stepped in with meals, rides and visits.

“This has just been a shower of love and support from places I never, ever would have expected — e-mails and calls from former students all over the world. And it has been a tremendous experience to have the equivalent of my hesped [eulogy] while I’m alive — the equivalent of what people will say at my funeral. To me that is remarkably lucky.”

It is the knowledge that he has affected so many people that gives him peace now. 

“You never know what time is going to be. I live as if there will be time to get to our grandson’s smicha [ordination], which will be in two years. My wife comes from a long-lived strain of people. I believe she could live until 100. I have no relatives who lived past 87, so I’ve already passed them. And I’m at peace with that. It doesn’t mean that I’m not interested in the future and wondering what will happen, but I really do feel peaceful.”

Mom, the full-time mensch

“Is everybody happy today?” Shana Passman cheerfully asked a table of Holocaust survivors eating lunch at Hollywood Temple Beth El at the annual Chanukah party of Café Europa, a social club for Holocaust Survivors run by the Jewish Family Service (JFS).

The survivors’ faces lit up, but one said she needed a napkin — and Passman quickly ran to get one. As Passman and the survivors shmoozed and later danced to the accordion band, it became hard to tell who was helping whom.

“These people inspire me,” said Passman, 60. “They’re not survivors for nothing.”

Passman said she feels fortunate to be able to make giving to others a vocation. For the past 14 years, she has volunteered her time assisting seniors in various capacities, including delivering weekly meals through Meals on Wheels and offering counseling as a case aide at the JFS/ Freda Mohr Multipurpose Center.

She sits on executive and advisory boards of a variety of organizations and educational institutions, including JFS, the food bank SOVA, United in Harmony, Pitzer College, and Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion’s School of Jewish Nonprofit Management.

Story continues after the video.

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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, 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.

Reform rabbinical school teaches students to reach out to HIV/AIDS patients

HIV/AIDS education at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) means “making sure rabbinical students don’t leave campus before they hone their skills to help people in need,” said Michele Prince, director of the Kalsman Institute of Judaism and Health at HUC-JIR.

At a time when HIV is more easily treatable but still a serious threat to global health, the imperative to care for those who are affected by the virus is both urgent and complex.

That means that while coursework in clinical pastoral education and pastoral counseling equips students with a theoretical understanding of the particular needs of people with HIV/AIDS, the most meaningful learning experiences most often happen away from the classroom.

“They work it out right at the bedside,” Prince said.

Through internships, students can also gain experience with marginalized people — the homeless, inmates in the Los Angeles County prison system, the mentally ill — who are less likely to have access to the new generation of medications that has allowed most HIV/AIDS patients to manage their disease more effectively.

“There are fewer patients who are hospitalized with HIV-related illnesses,” said Prince, “but people with the disease are often still stigmatized. That’s where the social justice component of pastoral education comes into play.”

Advocating for a social justice approach to HIV/AIDS education also entails teaching the values of Reform Judaism to young people who are just beginning to awaken to their sexual selves.

Rabbi Deborah Schuldenfrei at Congregation Shir Ha-Ma’alot in Irvine has developed a program co-sponsored by the Institute for Judaism and Sexual Orientation at HUC-JIR that provides information on sexual ethics and values to teenagers.

“Parents are sometimes shocked when they hear about the program, because they think we’re going to be talking to their kids about the mechanics of sex,” Schuldenfrei said. “What we want to emphasize is the value of beri’ut, emotional and spiritual health. As human beings we’re given the gifts of a physical body and wisdom, which means it’s our responsibility to learn how our bodies work and how to use them responsibly.”

Schuldenfrei said she works to help teens create language informed by scientific understanding that they can use to talk about sexuality with their parents and peers.

“So much mythology goes along with sex,” she said. “The science behind sexually transmitted diseases, birth control and pregnancy is part of the wisdom we have to offer when we teach about the ethics of sexuality. You have to teach the health component side-by-side with values.”

In addition to reaching across generations, HUC-JIR may also soon be reaching across oceans in its effort to bring HIV/AIDS care and education to people in need, said Prince. A recent rabbinical intern from Uganda hopes to attract other interns to his community in central Africa, where the spread of HIV across a wide swath of the population has had a destabilizing effect on social and economic development.

“The possibility of extending our reach internationally on the HIV/AIDS issue is just another aspect of the social justice component of what we do,” Prince said.

USC & HUC: A Winning Partnership

In the annals of party-going, the dinner hosted by USC President Steven Sample and his wife, Kathryn, at their impressive San Marino estate home last week, ranked right up near the top.

The food and drinks were excellent, the speeches short and few, and the general bonhomie so animated that Sample, citing a high noise level as a sure indicator of a party’s success, was reassured that his 160 guests were enjoying themselves.

The occasion marked the 30th anniversary of the partnership between USC and the neighboring Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. As is customary at such celebrations, both partners viewed with pride the accomplishments of the past and promised even greater things in the years ahead.

“You ain’t seen nothing yet,” said Rabbi Sheldon Zimmerman, president of the four-campus HUC.

Even now, some 600 USC undergraduates, many non-Jewish, are taking Jewish studies courses through HUC, Sample noted, and the two institutions grant joint master’s degrees in social work, gerontology, public administration and communications. Upcoming is a joint graduate program in business administration for future Jewish communal workers.

“No other seminary or research university can boast such an intimate relationship as between USC and HUC,” Sample said.

Lest East Coast critics dissent, Zimmerman added that even the relationship between New York’s Columbia University and the Jewish Theological Seminary “barely begins to touch the vision” of the Los Angeles partnership.

Partially due to the two institutions, both speakers foresaw an increasing influence of Western Jewry on the American Jewish scene. USC has just opened its new Institute for the Study of Jews in American Life, and Zimmerman said that he looked forward to the ordination of Reform rabbis on the local HUC campus. — Tom Tugend, Contributing Editor

HUC Dean Redux

More than a quarter century ago, Dr. Lewis Barth became one of the youngest college deans in the United States, assuming the post at Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles. Eight years later, he stepped down. Now, at 59, Barth is back, having returned to his old chair last month.

To say that HUC has changed in the past 26 years would be an understatement. Barth, easy-going and soft-spoken, is certainly aware of the changes and challenges that have been handed to him. Among other things, he says, he needs to raise the visibility of his college, improve the morale of his faculty, and secure a position of prominence for HUC within this city of competing Jewish institutions.

During the administration of Barth’s predecessor, Rabbi Lee Bycel, the Skirball Cultural Center was transformed from a small but respected museum on the HUC campus to a highly visible independent institution in the Sepulveda Pass. While some have worried that the Skirball’s presence within the community has eclipsed HUC’s, the college has sincemade strides of its own, solidifying its relationship with USC. The two institutions now share a number of programs, including USC’s newly established Department of Jewish studies.

Barth aims to further increase HUC’s visibility by playing to its strengths. His early strategy calls for bringing the full rabbinic preparation curriculum to his campus, including the prestigious ordination ceremonies. Supporters who have been pushing this policy change for years contend that in this one stroke, Barth could jump-start fund raising, increase the college’s enrollment and raise its profile.

In taking on such a challenge, Barth joins Reform Judaism’s relatively youthful new national leadership team of Rabbi Sheldon Zimmerman, president of the three Reform campuses (Cincinnati, Houston and Los Angeles), and Rabbi Eric Yoffie, director of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations.

“This is a historic moment for me,” says Barth, a native Angeleno who is also a nationally recognized scholar for his writings about Midrashic literature.

Barth has spent much of his career at HUC: In addition to his first term as dean (1971-1979), he has taught and done scholarly research. As a teacher, he has earned high marks from both students and colleagues. Rabbi Lawrence Goldmark, the new president of the Southern California Board of Rabbis, says that Barth is “the consummate teacher.”

“Lew is a tremendous motivator, meticulously prepared, and he’s popular with his students,” says Goldmark, a member of the youth group that Barth led at Temple Israel almost 40 years ago. “These are the kinds of skills I believe Lew will transfer successfully to the dean’s office, and lead the college to new heights.”