Foundation grants spur training of Jewish educators


The Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS), Yeshiva University and Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) recently completed a six-year, $45 million initiative funded by the Jim Joseph Foundation that increased the number of Jewish educators who earned advanced degrees and credentials from the three schools, provided for new or improved teaching programs, and boosted the number of educators who received jobs or promotions.

Under what the foundation called its Education Initiative, the three schools also devised new means of sustaining these programs and identified areas in which they could work together on improving the quality of the programs. 

“We believe that the field [of Jewish education] needs nothing less than a crusade to recruit and retain new talent to answer the call to educational leadership, be it in our schools, congregations, camps, youth groups or campuses,” said Miriam Heller Stern, national director of the HUC-JIR School of Education. “No single institution can shift the tide alone. The Jim Joseph Foundation has been a key partner and catalyst for change, committing essential financial and professional resources to the task of deepening the impact of our emerging leaders.”

Each of the schools received a grant of $15 million, $1 million of which was set aside for establishing collaboration between the three institutions, to fund its role in the initiative from 2010 to 2016. Along with the funds, the foundation provided the schools with guidance, technical assistance and evaluations of their programs.

According to a report prepared for the foundation by the American Institutes for Research (AIR), the grants made it possible for 1,508 people who teach or direct programs in Jewish schools, camps, youth groups, congregations and other settings to receive certificates or master’s degrees in Jewish education. About half of the graduates advanced their careers, and the average return on investment from earning a degree or certificate was a net income gain of $12,000 per year, the AIR report said. 

Educators who participated in the initiative’s programs reported that they learned essential skills to succeed in their positions and gained knowledge about Judaism, professional networking, how to be innovative in the classroom and how to lead. 

On the institutional side, JTS, HUC-JIR and Yeshiva University improved their strategies for attracting students and raising money to cover the costs of continuing the new programs, and the schools came up with structures for developing and offering online courses, the report said. 

 “The initiative provided an opportunity for educators to seek training as a way of upward mobility,” said Dawne Bear Novicoff, assistant director of the foundation. “They are staying in Jewish education beyond what had typically been a shorter career.” 

The Education Initiative led to 20 new programs, four of which were unprecedented collaboration among the three schools:

• The eLearning Collaborative: Provided seminars and mini grants that promoted the use of educational technology and improved teaching practices in the classroom and online.

• Experiential Jewish Education Conceptual Work: Agreed to practices, processes and structures to improve experiential Jewish education, and studied one another’s work and met at conferences to further their understanding of the topic.

• The Experiential Jewish Education Network: Jointly planned and launched a network that offers continued education as well as platforms for knowledge sharing for alumni of the Education Initiative’s programs.

• The Jewish Early Childhood Education Leadership Institute: In collaboration with Bank Street College, JTS and HUC-JIR created a professional development program for new and aspiring directors of early childhood education centers.

 “One of the things we helped provide was a deep partnership component,” Novicoff said. “Several times a year, we brought the institutions together. We gave them a broader view of where they fit in overall. They developed professional relationships, learned from one another and built up each other’s successes.” 

At HUC-JIR, Stern said the school was able to recruit working professionals who otherwise might not have pursued graduate studies. It also launched a certificate program in Jewish education that provided training for youth professionals and experiential educators in youth populations. The graduates also were given access to a career services program, in which they could learn how to deal with issues in their new positions.

 “The recently released evaluation report confirmed the long-held belief of academic program directors and faculty that a master’s degree in education is truly beneficial for advancing to a leadership position in the field and successfully navigating the challenges of those jobs,” Stern said. 

Going forward, the schools are expected to raise their own money for the programs, according to Chip Edelsberg, who was executive director of the foundation during the Education Initiative grant period. “By signing a memorandum, they understood that we were going to judge the success of the grant at each institution,” he said. “So far, they’ve been pretty successful.”

Overall, the grants enabled the three schools to do something they hadn’t been able to achieve before: Come together to work at improving Jewish education.

 “The Jim Joseph Education Initiative paved the way for creative collaboration across seminaries, lowering denominational boundaries and building partnerships among leading experts in Jewish education,” Stern said. “We bridged geographic and ideological dispersion. The Jim Joseph grant connected our mission with that of our sister institutions to elevate Jewish education as a whole.”

Rabbi Jacob Pressman turns 94: A community treasure


For decades now, as Rabbi Jacob (Jack) Pressman celebrated a milestone birthday, there was a gala show and dinner starring Rabbi Jack and his myriad show-biz friends to manifest and celebrate the many talents and achievements of this extraordinary man. Five years ago, Temple Beth Am celebrated his 90th birthday when he turned 89, just in case.

“At my age you don’t buy green bananas,” the rabbi said, quoting his mentor, the late Rabbi Simon Greenberg. But the celebration week will be a quiet one, as Rabbi Jack and Marjorie Pressman’s son, Joel, is gravely ill, as all who read the Jewish Journal this past month learned — gravely, but bravely, ill, still celebrating the glories of life, family and friendship, students and colleagues, the majesty of nature, the joy of song, the gift of love. 

But even at this most trying of times, Rabbi Jack’s 94th birthday warrants celebration.

In the circles I frequent as a university professor and a scholar, I know many men and women who are smart; far fewer who are wise. And Rabbi Jack is a wise man.

His role in the Los Angeles community is historic. 

Born in Philadelphia in 1919, Jack was raised at Temple Beth Am in Philadelphia, where the rabbi took a great interest in the boy and brought him in to teach Hebrew school and to run youth services. Jack was paid very modestly for his services, but in the Depression era, every dime was worth its weight in gold, and thus his interest in the rabbinate was born. So, too, his interest in a certain woman two years his junior, Marjorie Steinberg, who later became his wife and his lifelong partner of by now more than 70 years. 

A graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, Pressman came to the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) just as the war began, and his rabbinic training was accelerated as the U.S. military needed chaplains, and the American rabbinate needed rabbis desperately, as young rabbis were going off to fight alongside their congregants. While still a student, Pressman served as acting rabbi of Forest Hills Jewish Center, whose own Rabbi Ben Zion Bokser was in the Army. He was instrumental in the design of the synagogue’s building, a massive structure on Queens Boulevard. Of particular interest is its ark, designed by noted artist and political satirist Arthur Szyk. Later, as Pressman was offered prestigious positions on the East Coast, JTS Chancellor Louis Finkelstein advised him to go West. Los Angeles, he said, would soon join New York and Palestine as the three great centers of Jewish life. Pressman never regretted heeding Finkelstein’s sagacious advice.

He went on to serve as assistant to Rabbi Jacob Cohen at Sinai Temple, and then, in 1950, he took over a small congregation then known as the Olympic Jewish Center, which he turned into Temple Beth Am, making it a prominent Conservative congregation of more than 1,300 families in his time. Together with his wife — and they were then, as now, a team — Rabbi Pressman served his community as an institution builder. From Camp Ramah to the then-University of Judaism (now American Jewish University), from the Brandeis campus — now Brandeis-Bardin — to Israel Bonds, if it needed to be built or to be launched, Jack and Margie Pressman built it. He was the first registrar of the University of Judaism; he was a founder of Camp Ramah; he helped recruit Shlomo Bardin to come out to the institution that now bears his name; and for years Temple Beth Am, certainly not the wealthiest of all congregations in the United States, had the largest annual campaign for Israel Bonds in the country. 

Pressman helped found Los Angeles Hebrew High, Akivah Academy and the Temple Beth Am Day School that now bears his name. With foresight, he founded a non-Orthodox Jewish high school on Los Angeles’ Westside, known as the Herzl School, which could not be sustained, but the need he saw then still remains.

The late Walter Ackerman, longtime director of Camp Ramah, remembered how not only would Pressman always become personally involved, but he engaged his ba’alabatim (lay leaders), expanded their horizons, extended their reach. And along the way, he never neglected his congregation. At a time when rabbis were taught to keep their distance from congregants, his closest friends were his own congregants — he traveled with them, enjoyed their company, went through the travails and joys of life with them, and could still remain their rabbi.

Rabbi Perry Netter recalled that when he interviewed for an internship at Temple Beth Am, he was wary of Pressman’s reputation as a showman rabbi, palling around with Hollywood stars. So he asked Rabbi Pressman how he spent his average day. Pressman took out his calendar and went through every appointment, recited by heart the circumstances of each of the congregants with whom he had met, remembered each bar mitzvah boy and bat mitzvah girl, every bride and groom. Young Rabbi Netter was wowed and went away feeling that it would be an honor to intern with this man. Rabbi Pressman may have known the rich and famous, but he also always took pride in the men and women within his own congregation.

A national communal leader in the 1960s, Pressman helped to create the Save Soviet Jewry movement that brought the plight of Soviet Jewry to the attention of the American public and helped create the program that eventually enabled tens of thousands of Soviet Jews to immigrate to Israel. 

In 1965, he joined a group of 293 Southern Californians who walked with Martin Luther King Jr., who was joined by Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and Rabbi Maurice Eisendrath, then head of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations. Together they crossed the Pettis Bridge to the state Capitol building in Montgomery, Ala., — with so many whites in the march and so much national attention that Theophilus Eugene “Bull” Connor, Birmingham’s commissioner of public safety during the American civil rights movement, could not fully unleash his troops.

Although Pressman is an institution builder, two of his major contributions to L.A. Jewish life may have been an institution he did not build and an institution he empowered to come into being without him.

After the L.A. riots, when synagogues were moving westward, Pressman committed to his congregation that they would remain in place at the intersection of Olympic and La Cienega boulevards, provided a substantial number of families would stay in the neighborhood. He went from door to door, speaking individually to families and getting them to sign up. As a result, Temple Beth Am is that rare Conservative congregation in California with a walking community, and it remains the anchor of the historic Carthay neighborhood. Three out of four of its members live within two miles of the synagogue.

In 1973, Pressman realized that in the future the “one-size-fits-all service” would not meet the needs of his congregation. Young Jews, educated at Camp Ramah and in Jewish day schools, graduates of the JTS and of Judaic studies programs, were coming to Los Angeles, many to serve its expanding Jewish community, and they wanted a self-led participatory service rather than a professionally led formal service. Pressman encouraged this group to form the Library Minyan, a family-friendly, informal lay-led minyan, which over the years was integrated into the congregation and provided its leadership. By now, Beth Am has thrived for some 43 years, and on any given Shabbat, as many as five different services are taking place within the synagogue’s walls; Beth Am became the precursor to the “synaplex.”

For many years, Pressman would say, wistfully, that he served the Beth Am community for more than 60 years, and what did he get?  “A bunch of kids running around town wearing my name on their dirty shirts.” 

The reference is to the fact that when he retired, Temple Beth Am named its award-winning day school in his honor: “The Rabbi Jacob Pressman Day School.” 

He’s talking about my kids, I thought, my kids and grandkids. This has got to stop. Don’t get mad, get even, I thought. 

I waited. And then one day I struck. 

Fresh out of the hospital, Rabbi Pressman did us the honor of attending our son’s bar mitzvah. When I rose to speak, I said, “I know your complaints, rabbi, but last week I attended a basketball game — Maimonides versus Pressman. Not bad company, Maimonides/Pressman in the same breath. My kids and the students who attend the school call Maimonides Maimo, but Pressman, they call Pressman. My daughter played Hillel the next night, Hillel/Pressman, also not bad company. I asked the students who was Maimonides, few knew that Maimonides and the Rambam were the same, but our kids all know Rabbi Pressman.” 

When my wife, Melissa, and I first came to Los Angeles, Margie and Rabbi Jack took an interest in us. When I took a new job, he admonished me on what I should do. He took an interest in my speaking style and even in the manner of my dress.

My wife and I have become close to the Pressmans over the past 16 years; we share Passover together and holiday dinners. We seek their advice; we enjoy their company, and we attend many events where Rabbi Jack gets up to speak. He is increasingly frail and walks with difficulty, but put him in front of a microphone, and 20 years come off his age. He becomes robust again, his voice strong, his wit and his wisdom intact. 

Each Rosh Hashanah, we attend the service on the first night to hear his poetic blessing, and each graduation and gala dinner of the Pressman Academy, his words are inspiring, his talent manifest. 

Rabbi Pressman’s life and his calling were one and the same. Rabbi emeritus for some 27 years, he and Margie have continued to serve the community in retirement as they did when it was their paid vocation. And we, the Jewish community — and most especially the community of Beth Am — are graced by their service and their presence.

Simply put. Rabbi Jack Pressman is to be treasured.

JTS opening interreligious center with $2 million gift


The Jewish Theological Seminary said it will establish an interreligious center with a $2 million gift from New York philanthropist Howard Milstein.

The Milstein Center for Interreligious Dialogue will be funded by the gift from Milstein, the president of New York Private Bank and Trust, according to a statement from the Conservative movement seminary. Milstein, a board member of the UJA-Federation of New York, has funded a an archive project at the YIVO institute in New York.

Rabbi Burton Visotzky, a professor of midrash and interreligious studies at JTS, will serve as the center’s director.

“The new Center will expand the long commitment of JTS to interreligious dialogue and partnership, and enable us to highlight an annual schedule of distinct programs that range in complexity and content,” he said in a statement.

The center’s inaugural event Oct. 31 will feature Cardinal Kurt Koch, the president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity.

It’s hard to find good day school leaders these days


A dearth of leadership talent is affecting not only the likes of Yahoo! and Microsoft, it’s also wreaking havoc on the Jewish day school system as schools find it increasingly difficult to recruit and retain qualified heads.

Representatives from 11 Jewish educational organizations will meet next month at a think-tank at the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) in New York. Working with strategic planners and other Jewish and general education experts, they will look for solutions to what they describe as a crisis.

“As soon as you bring it up with those involved in Jewish education, it’s like bringing up the topic of in-laws with a group of married people — there are a lot of nodding heads,” said Nina Butler, an educational consultant at the Avi Chai Foundation. The foundation has a special focus on day school education, and is one of the think tank’s organizers.

To some extent, the day school system is a victim of its own success, said Rabbi Joshua Elkin, executive director of the Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education (PEJE).

“This is basically a story about the phenomenally rapid growth of the day school system in North America,” he said. “For the last couple of decades, the addition of new schools and the expansion of schools has put a tremendous demand on the Jewish community to supply leaders and teachers. The growth has outstripped the capacity.”

There are roughly 800 North American day schools, and 60 new schools have opened since PEJE, a collaboration of major philanthropists to improve Jewish education, started in 1997, Elkin said. The number of children in day schools has increased by 100,000 since 1982 to more than 200,000 today, according to a 2003 Avi Chai census.

Frances Urman, director of the Day School Leadership Training Institute, founded by Avi Chai and run out of JTS, said her office has seen a “tremendous” influx of calls from schools across the country looking to fill their top spots. Her office runs a 14-month fellowship to train prospective day school leaders.

Marvin Schick, a senior adviser to the Avi Chai Foundation, said finding heads of school isn’t the only issue — there’s also the problem of keeping them.

Schick recently completed research for a study into Jewish day school leadership. He sent out 500 questionnaires to Jewish heads of school and got 400 responses.

The study looked at career path, salary, job responsibilities, career satisfaction and other areas. The data won’t be ready for release for several months, but Schick said it shows that a “significant number” of Jewish heads of school are “new or fairly new” at their jobs.

Most started out as teachers without expecting to go into administrative work, he said, and one out of five continues to teach on top of other duties. Schick also found that job satisfaction is very high among heads of school, with 90 percent of those who returned the questionnaire reporting less than 1 percent job dissatisfaction.

Schick said it was “remarkable that there is so much movement in the field.”

Los Angeles, home to 37 day schools serving 10,000 K-12th grade students, has bucked the national trend and enjoyed healthy stability in retaining principals and headmasters, according to Gil Graff, executive director of the Los Angeles Bureau of Jewish Education.

“School heads have been drawn from a variety of backgrounds, including both Jewish education and public and private school administration. Rare are the instances of appointment as head of a day school in L.A., absent previous experience in a senior role in educational administration,” Graff said.

Still, the national crisis is cause for concern.

“Los Angeles, however, represents 5 percent of the schools and students in the American day school universe. Ensuring that, nationally, there is a sufficient pool of well-qualified heads of Jewish day schools to serve the needs of an expanding number of institutions is vital to sustaining and furthering the momentum of the day school movement,” Graff said.

PEJE’s Elkin said the average retention rate for heads of Jewish schools is three to six years, hardly enough time for an educator to leave a mark. For the schools to be successful, they have to figure out how to raise that rate to six to nine years, Elkin said.

When principals do switch jobs, it’s often because they find better opportunities, advancement or a preferable location, said Schick, who noted that “very few were fired.”

Some of the difficulty stems from the fact that schools are popping up in small Jewish communities, such as Kerry, N.C. and Asheville, N.C., said Marc Kramer, executive director of RAVSAK, an umbrella organization for the country’s 90 Jewish community schools.

Getting qualified people to leave bigger Jewish communities is often a problem, and getting them to stay when a job in a larger city opens up is difficult, he said.

A head of school functions like a CEO, maintaining curriculum and serving as liaison among the school’s board, faculty, parents and student body, while making sure that school finances are in check. Finding someone who is qualified to do all this — and who also has experience working at a Jewish school — is nearly impossible, Kramer said.

He added that about eight RAVSAK schools — about 10 percent of the schools in the system — look for new heads each year.

That’s why Debra Altshul-Stark, president of the board of the Milwaukee Jewish Day School, considers her school very lucky to have found a qualified applicant to take over as head of school this year. The founding headmaster of the 25-year-old school retired five years ago, and the school couldn’t find a qualified replacement.

The board decided to try a three-headed approach. That flopped, as did a model of two heads of school.

When the board decided to go back to a single-head model, Stark was wary, because the first search had been so disappointing. This time 25 candidates applied; one had the general educational and Jewish educational background — and wanted to move to Milwaukee.

New JTS Head Faces Trouble, Opportunity


Arnold Eisen doesn’t need to be reminded that he’s not a rabbi. It’s certainly not news to him.

The Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) announced this month that Eisen, 54, the chair of Stanford University’s religious studies program, would become just the second nonrabbi to serve as the New York City seminary’s chancellor and the first since 1940. He succeeds Rabbi Ismar Schorsch, who held the post for two decades.

“I would have preferred a rabbi in this position, too,” said Eisen with a laugh. “I’ve been writing and thinking for 25 years about changes I’d like to see made, and now I have a chance to help make them.”

Eisen ascends to the helm of a Conservative movement that is hemorrhaging memberships on a congregational level and cannot, at present, reach consensus about whether to ordain openly gay and lesbian rabbis. Perhaps more than any other branch of American Judaism, the Conservatives must walk a difficult line in maintaining a coherent identity as halachic Jews in the modern world. Eisen is well aware of these quandaries and has spent a lifetime considering various solutions.

Take the pressing question of what to do about openly homosexual rabbis. Eisen offered a three-part answer.

“No. 1, this is a halachic movement, period. I want honesty and integrity in the halachic process carried through, and I would be upset if it were not. And No. 2, it’s a faculty matter. The faculty has to teach the people who are going to be ordained. So there will be a halachic decision by rabbis and there will be faculty discussion as well. Then, I voice my personal opinion about how I’d like things to turn out, and you know what that is.”

Eisen personally favors the ordination of gay and lesbian rabbis, while also insisting, “I’m not qualified to decide on matters of rabbinic law. That’s one of the things that changes” with a nonrabbi at the reins of the seminary. The halachic decisions of the JTS will now fall to a yet-to-be determined rabbi or perhaps even a number of rabbis. They simply haven’t figured it out yet.

Bay Area Jewish community leaders, while intrigued by the novelty of having a nonrabbi lead a rabbinical seminary, were far more preoccupied with praising Eisen’s record over two decades as one of the nation’s foremost scholars in the field of modern Jewish thought.

Because the JTS selection committee chose to look outside the rabbinate, the Conservative seminary now has a leader who was never mired in political infighting, said professor Lee Shulman, the president of Stanford’s Carnegie Foundation for Advancement of Teaching and a longtime colleague of Eisen.

Rabbi Stuart Kelman of Berkeley’s Conservative Congregation Netivot Shalom said that Eisen’s academic record indicates “that the seminary, which has consistently stood for academic excellence, will continue to do so.”

“Arnie didn’t live in [a] cloister,” added Rabbi Brian Lurie, former director of the San Francisco-based Jewish Community Federation. “He mixed with students and donors and is a person who understands what’s going on on the street. His research at school really gave him a very unique and strong vantage point on the American Jewish community. They didn’t give this job to some ivory tower isolated person.”

A colleague praised Eisen as a scholar with his feet firmly planted on the ground and one who has long devoted thoughtful consideration to issues of the Jewish community.

“The questions that have engaged him most as a scholar are arguably the central questions that engage Jews today,” said Steven Zipperstein, Eisen’s Stanford colleague.

Eisen’s dissertation explored the ramifications of being both Jewish and American. A subsequent book, “Galut: Modern Jewish Reflection on Homelessness and Homecoming” (Indiana University Press, 1986) explored Jewish feelings of being at home and homeless in the Diaspora.

“His concerns begin with the preoccupations of everyday Jews,” Zipperstein said.

And, as far as Eisen is concerned, too few everyday Jews are preoccupied with Torah.

“There are literally a couple of million Jews in this country who have never had Torah taught to them in a live and exciting way. They just don’t get it. They don’t get how much Jewish tradition could mean to them. So they’re turned off and disconnected, and we’ve got to reach them better,” he said. “I now have a chance to help train a lot of the people who are going to be serving them for the next generation.”

Eisen, an active congregant at Palo Alto’s Kol Emeth, can’t deny the declining synagogue rolls in the Conservative movement but insists that “the numbers for all [affiliated] Jews are down…. It’s a very strong movement, and I don’t understand the sense of malaise some people feel.”

Rather than obsess solely on wooing new members (or disenchanted old ones), Eisen said that the movement must provide more for its existing membership: “We need a better prayer experience, better schools, better adult learning and better communities. If we can do any or all of these things, we will have an improved movement.”

Conservative thinkers have, for some time, pondered how to invigorate the movement. Rabbi David Wolpe of Sinai Temple in Westwood has suggested a name change to something that better reflects the direction and potential of the movement. He suggested Covenental Judaism.

Eisen disagrees with that approach: “Rather than have a name change [of the movement], I’d rather we live up to our potential.”

For his part, Wolpe has enthusiastically embraced the choice of Eisen.

Eisen’s selection to head the JTS follows a trend. Richard Joel, the former president of Hillel, took over the presidency of the Orthodox Yeshiva University in 2003; like Eisen, Joel is not a rabbi. In 2001, David Ellenson took over the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR). And while Ellenson is a rabbi, he is best known for his scholarship in Jewish studies.

“That JTS needed to go to Stanford to pick their president a couple of years after HUC had to go to Los Angeles to get David Ellenson, now the myth is finally broken. The West Coast is not a backwater of the Jewish community. Indeed, it’s very likely the cutting edge of the new leadership of the Jewish community,” said Stanford’s Shulman.

Eisen, for his part, downplayed any rivalries between East Coast and West Coast Conservative Judaism, namely Los Angeles’ University of Judaism and New York’s JTS. But, as a native Philadelphian who has lived in the Bay Area for nearly 20 years, he says he could serve as a natural bridge.

He’s also not quite ready to leave the Bay Area yet, and as “chancellor designate,” he doesn’t have to assume full duties until July 2007. In the meantime, he will serve at both Stanford and the seminary. But he says he’s ready to take on the challenges, while also realizing the inherent limitations of his new mission.

“You know, I’m a pluralist,” Eisen said, “and I don’t think Judaism is the only way to be a good person and serve God. I don’t think Conservative Judaism is the only way to be a good Jew. But having said that, I’ve been a Conservative Jew all my life, and this is the path that matters most to me. And I will do all I can for it.”

This article is reprinted from the J Weekly, a Northern California publication.

Choice of Seminary Leader a Bold Move


The selection of professor Arnold Eisen as the new chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) represents a bold move of unpredictable consequences for its leadership.

Eisen is a distinguished scholar of modern Jewish thought and an insightful student of the American Jewish community. His work, “The Jew Within,” written jointly with Steven Cohen, explores the identity of marginally affiliated contemporary Jews and illustrates the crisis that institutional liberal Judaism has in maintaining the allegiance of a new generation of American Jews.

Few are as equipped as Eisen to understand the dilemmas of Conservative Judaism, which has been buffeted on the right by Chabad and Modern Orthodoxy and on the left by Reform Judaism. More traditional Jews, including many of those trained by the institutions of Conservative Judaism, such as Ramah and the Solomon Schecter Day Schools, move into Modern Orthodoxy. The less devout easily move to a retraditionalized Reform Judaism, and the categories of Conservative Judaism, a liberal, historically oriented halachic Judaism, are alien to virtually all of its members — save their rabbis — and to the overwhelming majority of contemporary Jews who seek to find their own Jewish path. For the religiously innovative, the renewal movement has been attractive, and the denominational identifications of the past generations have proven more porous among contemporary Jews who have chosen a congregation and a community rather than a movement

Eisen is a scholar and not a rabbi.

The unanswered question raised by his appointment is whether he will chose to be the head of an institution or the leader of a movement.

Traditionally, the chancellor of JTS was the principle spokesman, its most recognizable and authoritative voice in Conservative Judaism. Unlike Reform Judaism, where there are two centers of power, the Union for Reform Judaism (formerly the Union of American Hebrew Congregations) and the president of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR), the JTS chancellor was unrivaled for leadership of the movement. It is not known whether Eisen will choose to lead a declining movement or confine himself to rebuilding an academic institution whose graduates of the 1950-1970s dominate Jewish studies in universities and colleges throughout the world. Either way, his appointment is a serious diminishment of rabbinic authority within the Conservative movement.

The rabbi was once a figure of authority because he — and until the 1980s, all Conservative rabbis were men — alone was Jewishly learned; he alone had mastery of text and was intellectually equipped to handle Jewish learning. In the liberal movements of Judaism, learning has moved to the campus, where Jewish scholarship is flourishing and is no longer the monopoly of the rabbi.

Power now has to be shared. For almost a century, JTS was the only place where Conservative rabbis could be trained. Today, New York is one of several centers where Conservative rabbis can be trained. Students can chose Los Angeles or Jerusalem, which now produce rabbis for Conservative congregations. Hebrew College, the new seminary in Boston headed by Arthur Green, one of the most distinguished of JTS graduates from the ’60s, should also be producing rabbis, skilled men and women of serious religious commitment.

Eisen inherits an institution that had recently found itself in the unenviable position of being forced to dispose of valuable Manhattan property to rescue itself from cumbersome debts, all this at a time when elsewhere in the Jewish world, hundreds of millions of dollars have been raised for Jewish scholarship.

As a nonrabbi whose brilliant work is not oriented to classical texts and whose categories of interpretation are not those of Conservative Judaism, he will have quite a challenge in bringing JTS forth into the 21st century.

I would hope that he chooses to lead the movement and not just its seminary, for one wonders whether JTS can thrive without the Conservative movement to produce its students and employ its graduates. Without the congregational base, why would one choose the seminary when the academic study of Judaism is readily available elsewhere.

Were Eisen to assume leadership of the movement, he will find that it has many assets, synagogues where there is genuine community and also serious religiosity, liberal style. The movement includes Camp Ramah, which has been successful for more than half a century and has produced its current and Solomon Schecter schools, which are thriving. There is also the potential of the Masorati movement in Israel. There is much upon which to build.

If Eisen does not lead the Conservative movement, then leadership will have to come from elsewhere, from rabbis, scholars or perhaps lay leaders who can provide a vision of the new generation. Otherwise, the Conservative movement, despite its many assets, will fade from the scene. In conversations with colleagues last weekend, some see the diffusion of leadership as a major virtue, even though it will diminish the influence of JTS, which could not produce a viable candidate within to head the institution.

If reports are to be believed, the search committee rejected the obvious choice, Gordon Tucker, the rabbi who combined academic learning and rabbinic leadership. He faced the problem of many inside candidates whose flaws were known and whose manifold skills were taken for granted. One also suspects that the opponents he made more than a decade ago as dean of the rabbinical school got even and exacted their pound of flesh.

Furthermore, he was an outspoken supporter of the ordination of gays, a position that earned him the enmity of the chancellor, who felt it divisive to the movement and to those on the religious right of Conservative Judaism. Seemingly, Tucker could not be defeated from the right, so an outsider was chosen whose views were unarticulated, although one suspects clearly known.

American Jewry is best off with a strong center, with movements that are thriving; synagogues that are innovating; rabbis who are challenging, spiritually significant and religiously inspired. So one wishes Eisen well as he embarks on his boldest challenge.

Still, in the evolving Judaism of the 21st century, one must marvel at the irony of contemporary Jewish life that the president of HUC-JIR is a far greater student of classical texts, far more immersed in the text of halachic Judaism, than the chancellor of JTS or the president of Yeshiva University. Only in America!

Dr. Michael Berenbaum is professor of theology and director of the Sigi Ziering Institute at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles.

 

Q & A With Ismar Schorsch


Dr. Ismar Schorsch, chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) in New York, will retire in June. In that role, he has been informally considered the closest thing that the Conservative movement has to a leader. Schorsch, 70, met with The Journal to assess his two decades heading the seminary and his hopes for the future.

The Jewish Journal: Many observers say the next leader of the seminary has to be more than an academic or a capable university administrator — that the next leader will have to assume a crucial leadership role with the Conservative movement. How do you see the role of the next chancellor?

Ismar Schorsch: The chancellor is the head of the Conservative movement. And the chancellor often speaks of theology and religion, [giving] voice to Conservative Judaism in the public arena.

JJ: What did you originally set out to accomplish as chancellor? What do you think you did accomplish?

IS: I can’t say I came in with a well-formed agenda. Early on in my career, I did set a set of priorities for my administration — I was determined to make Jewish education the top priority of the seminary. I never wavered from that goal. I would say that my greatest accomplishment was significantly and largely the investment in serious Jewish education. We created the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education, which is by far the largest school in the country.

The School of Education has had an enormous impact on the other schools of the seminary. Many of the rabbinical and cantorial students are taking a masters of Jewish education. They are clearly going to be advocates of Jewish education when they finish their education. There will be a team effort in synagogues — you will have the rabbi, the cantor and the educational director all committed to serious education from preschool to adult learning. I think the creation of the School of Education has been an enormous catalyst for what I think is the only effective, viable response to the challenge of assimilation in American society, and that is serious Jewish education.

JJ: What has been your greatest challenge as chancellor?

IS: When I came in, we were still in the throes of ordaining women rabbis. We were not admitting women to cantorial school, and I immediately set about admitting qualified women students. And then we promoted the employment of women rabbis and cantors in the movement. So I would say that the integration of women students into the movement and cantorial school occupied my attention in the first [half of his time as chancellor].

JJ: You helped integrate women into the movement. But they are not at the place they necessarily need to be: The Rabbinical Assembly’s (RA) report last year found that women make less money and don’t serve as leaders of major synagogues.

IS: I think the publication of the study itself is an important step. It’s crystallized the problem and intensified the advocacy by the RA and the seminary for equalizing pay and employing women in larger congregations. I think that’s happening. There’s been a positive response to the critical study of women in the rabbinate. There are women getting more interviews in larger congregations and getting positions there.

JJ: Why hasn’t it happened yet?

IS: Cultural change is slow. It’s naive to expect a change of that magnitude to occur from one year to the next. The transition may be frustrating, but I think it’s inevitable. Proactive measures and advocacy can accelerate the process but not eliminate it.

JJ: Why are you retiring now?

IS: There are some other things I’d like to do. I’m first and foremost a scholar; I came from the faculty, and I want to return to the faculty. I want to write a number of pieces that I have been working on, and I want to return to full-time teaching.

JJ: The seminary won’t ordain openly gay rabbis. Do you see a change coming in the future? Do you think a part of the movement will break off because of the gay rights issue?

IS: I want to address the larger issue of what direction the Conservative movement should take. The Conservative movement should reaffirm the correctness and power of its base with Jewish law … the Conservative movement should not try and be a rainbow. It needs to reaffirm the validity of traditional Judaism — that’s what the word ‘conserve’ means. The Conservative movement was created as a reaction to extreme reform in this society, which knows no limits. It is incumbent upon the Conservative movement to advocate traditional Jewish values and practice.

JJ: Who are the leading candidates to replace you?

IS: I am not involved in the search for my successor.

JJ: What do you consider a failure in your term or something you did not manage to accomplish?

IS: I would have liked to accomplish more in Israel. I think [the Conservative movement] is still small and fragile in Israel. In the mid-’90s, I led a national campaign to eliminate the office of the chief rabbinate, to have the State of Israel treat Reform and Conservative rabbis exactly as they treat Orthodox rabbis, to achieve a measure of separation between Orthodoxy and State of Israel. I can’t say that campaign has succeeded.

JJ: Ehud Bandel, the head of the movement in Israel, the Masorti movement, was let go this summer. How can the movement grow in Israel?

IS: The movement [here] has not been [good] about raising money [for Israel.] The great success [there] has been the Schecter Institute of Jewish Studies. The Schecter Institute is having an enormous impact on education in the State of Israel through the Tali schools, which is a network of Conservative Israeli schools.

I think more financial support is critical to grow the movement in Israel. Good leadership would help a lot. The resistance to non-Orthodox growth in Israel is formidable.

JJ: The Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies in Los Angeles was founded from the University of Judaism during your leadership and didn’t please many on the East Coast, as it created a center for rabbinic study on the West Coast. Do you think JTS will always be the leading organization of the movement? How would you categorize the relationship between the East and West Coast schools?

IS: The seminary, to its enormous credit, has created a number of very significant institutions in the Jewish world. It created the University of Judaism after the Second World War, and it created the Jewish Museum in New York 100 years ago, which today houses the finest Jewish library outside the State of Israel. The seminary created the Schecter Institute, which is today a fully accredited Israeli institution. The seminary has a very fine track record in spawning institutions that grow to maturity and gain independence. That is not something to be diminished.

I’m proud of the accomplishments of the University of Judaism; our relationship with the Ziegler school is excellent. Our students spend a year together. We do placement together. There is a good deal of traffic and collaboration. There is neither animosity nor competition. What you have today are a number of Conservative seminaries producing leadership for the Conservative movement. What has developed over time is that you have a solar system of Conservative rabbinical institutions.

JJ: Is that going to weaken JTS’s prominence?

IS: The seminary has not been diminished. Its impact on the larger world has grown by the virtue of its offspring.

JJ: What do you think of breakaway synagogues that do not identify themselves as Conservative, despite shared values?

IS: It’s a phenomenon worth paying attention to. I think it’s an important development. The thrust for post-denominationalism is largely coming from the Conservative movement — it’s not coming from the Reform and not the Orthodox movement.

I think we should not embrace the rhetoric of post-denominationalism blindly. It is a rhetoric that cuts to the very core of the social capital of the American Jewish community. American democracy is promoted by the private sector, and the organized Jewish community is funded by the synagogue membership. To weaken the synagogue weakens the foundation of the organized Jewish community. Two-thirds of JCC membership comes from the synagogue. To weaken the synagogue base is to weaken the superstructure of the organized Jewish community. Therefore, I would be very careful of anti-synagogue rhetoric.

JJ: The Reform movement has recently moved to the right, and Orthodoxy seems to be thriving. Why do you think Conservative Judaism is important for American Jewry?

IS: The right-wing movement of the Reform should embolden us to affirm our traditional base. The climate is in our favor. “Conservative” is not a dirty word anymore. In a climate that is increasingly sympathetic to traditional values, this movement ought not to be shy of advocating values. I applaud the return of Reform to the center — I believe that the center is where most Jews want to be. I believe the cohesion of Jewish community lies in the center and not on the extremes. It is precisely that importance of the center that makes Conservative Judaism so vital to the American Jewish Community. Without a center you have two wings that do not have contact with each other. The Conservative movement is the bridge that keeps this community together. Eliminate that bridge and you get sects and not a religious community.

 

Wolpe Leading Pick for Seminary Spot


The Forward newspaper has reported that Rabbi David Wolpe of Los Angeles has emerged as a top candidate to head the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) in New York.

The Nov. 18 article, “L.A. Rabbi Eyed as Conservative Seminary Head,” asserted that “support is mounting for a prominent pulpit rabbi from Los Angeles to become the next chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, after he delivered an enthusiastically received speech last week on the future of Conservative Judaism.”

The position of JTS chancellor is widely viewed as the head of the entire Conservative movement, as well as the leader of its flagship institution.

Wolpe of Sinai Temple in Westwood told The Journal that he is flattered by the attention, but that he’s also happy with his current job. And that speech, he added, was hardly intended as part of a campaign strategy.

He said he planned his remarks six months ago, before Chancellor Ismar Schorsch announced that he would be retiring next June.

Wolpe’s Nov. 10 speech at the seminary, “What Does Conservative Judaism Have to Say to the 21st Century?” argued for changing the name of Conservative Judaism to “Covenantal Judaism,” to better encompass the view that rabbinic law is both binding and evolving.

Wolpe’s relative youth (he’s 47) and charisma have garnered him supporters. The search committee will make no comments, but other candidates are believed to include Rabbi Gordon Tucker, the rabbi of Temple Israel in White Plains, N.Y., known for his liberal positions, and Jack Wertheimer, the seminary’s provost, who, like the more conservative Schorsch, opposes ordaining gay rabbis.

Wolpe has served at Sinai Temple for eight years, and he’s known for political adroitness. He has, for example, never publicly stated his position on gays in the rabbinate, an issue of ongoing dispute. On the other hand, Wolpe stirred some controversy of his own in 2001 when he questioned whether the Exodus actually happened in a Passover sermon in front of his congregation.

 

Student Rabbis, Cantors Take Next Step


University of Judaism

It might just be a demographic blip, but it certainly is an interesting one. This year’s graduating class of rabbis at the Conservative University of Judaism (UJ) in Los Angeles is made up of four women and two men. And at the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) in New York, there are 10 women to the seven men.

Are female rabbis taking over the Conservative movement — which only began ordaining women in 1985?

Probably not, said Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at UJ, on a hilltop campus where Mulholland Drive and Sepulveda Boulevard meet.

The gender breakdown is about 50-50 among the 75 rabbinic students at the school, Artson said. That ratio, he said, reflects the school’s commitment to gender-blind admissions, and to the work the school does to make sure UJ is open to women in all ways.

“Opening a school to women but not talking about the ways in which gender shapes a certain reality is not really admitting women,” Artson said. “We have been conscious about making gender something we talk about here.”

That means classes and mentorships bring the societal sexual divide to the foreground. And, Artson said, women are occupying an increasingly prominent role in the administration.

Founded in 1947 as a satellite of JTS, UJ began ordaining rabbis six years ago, and the fruit of that shift to independence will be apparent next year, as about 20 rabbis will be up for ordination, compared to the seven or eight of years past.

“For 100 years, the Conservative movement had one rabbinical school,” Artson said. “It’s taken a while to grow into and embrace this new expanded reality.”

Academy for Jewish Religion

Just six years after it was founded, the Academy for Jewish Religion(AJR) has a graduating class that is almost as large as the classes at the more established ordaining institutions in Los Angeles.

AJR, which is unaffiliated with any denomination, is graduating five rabbis, not far behind the UJ’s six and Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion’s eight. In addition, AJR is the only show in town ordaining cantors, with two graduating this year.

The niche audience of mostly second-career students interested in a pluralistic education has proven to be a large and dependable one, with 60 students enrolled for professional training as rabbis, cantors and chaplains.

AJR graduates fill roles that don’t fall neatly within the organized Jewish world, such as presiding at life-cycle events for the unaffiliated, leading independent prayer groups and serving in chaplaincy positions, said AJR founding chairman Rabbi Stan Levy.

“We go to wherever Jews are finding themselves, and we try to get them into a more intensive Jewish spiritual life,” Levy said.

AJR has outgrown its quarters at Temple Beth Torah on Venice Boulevard, and is negotiating the final details to move into the Yitzchak Rabin Hillel Center for Jewish Life at UCLA.

Levy looks forward to planning joint programming with both Hillel and the university.

“It’s a far more prominent location for us to be in, right in the center of a vibrant university with a vibrant Hillel,” Levy said.

 

The New Face of the UJ


Sitting in his sunny Bel Air hilltop office, the president of the University of Judaism (UJ), Dr. Robert Wexler, is in a cheerful mood.

A high-profile lecture series of top American and Israeli personalities is generating national attention and an unexpected financial bonanza. The university’s continuing education arm is innovating new programs and drawing close to 10,000 participants. Enrollment in the young rabbinical school is running higher than anticipated.

Granted, there are also some nagging problems. As always, the fluctuating fiscal health of the institution is worrisome. The uncertain impact of the Sept. 11 attacks and a sliding economy has Wexler "holding my breath," he says. Undergraduate enrollment remains low. And some critics charge that the UJ has forsaken its responsibility as the flagship of Conservative Judaism on the West Coast.

The evolution of the University of Judaism and its 50-year-old president are closely intertwined. The UJ was founded in 1947, and Wexler was born three years later. In 1968, fresh out of high school, Wexler took his first UJ course during the summer session.

After receiving a doctorate in Near Eastern studies at UCLA and his ordination as a Conservative rabbi at the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS), followed by a lectureship at Princeton University, Wexler joined the UJ in 1978 as assistant to the dean of students.

In 1992, he followed the highly respected Dr. David Lieber as UJ president.

The institution Wexler took over was co-founded by the Los Angeles Bureau of Jewish Education and by the JTS in New York, the rabbinical training and academic center of the Conservative movement. UJ’s guiding philosophy, however, was formulated by the great Jewish educator and thinker Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, author of the path-breaking "Judaism as a Civilization."

"Kaplan viewed the role of the Jewish university as a multicentered institution, in which the teaching of the liberal and fine arts was of equal importance to the training of rabbis," Wexler says.

The founding lay leaders of the UJ, men like Dore Schary and Milton Sperling, came from the Hollywood film industry and shared the view that the UJ should give equal emphasis to culture and to religion.

As to his personal outlook, Wexler says, "I am an observant Jew, but I feel just as comfortable with a social-action Jew or a cultural Jew."

He acknowledges that UJ administrators may not have consistently clarified their philosophical viewpoint, leading later to criticism among some Conservative synagogues.

In practice, Wexler interprets the UJ’s "general educational mission to the community" and "eclectic approach to Judaism" broadly enough so that it easily accommodates a lecture series featuring former President Bill Clinton (Jan. 14); former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright (Feb. 11); political strategist James Carville (March 11); and Israel’s former Prime Minister Ehud Barak (April 22).

Spearheaded by a massive advertising campaign — including full-page ads in the Western editions of Time and Newsweek featuring the slogan, "If the University of Judaism can bring today’s leaders to L.A. — imagine what it can bring to you," — the lecture series has been met with a public response that has even stunned its organizers.

The lectures were originally booked for the 3,000-seat Santa Monica Civic Auditorium, but as the wave of ticket requests rolled in, they were quickly transferred to the Universal Amphitheatre, which seats 5,000 in the orchestra level, and 1,200 in the mezzanine.

After the change of venue, the idea was to restrict seating to the lower level, but as demand continued, the upper level was opened up as well. By early this week, all but a hundred of the mezzanine tickets had been sold, and it’s almost certain there will be a full house by the time Clinton takes the podium.

"I had no idea this series would be so popular," Wexler says, even though all four speakers have been closely involved in American-Israeli relations "I guess people, especially after Sept. 11, want direct access to those who have been in power. It’s different from seeing them on TV," he adds.

The financial payback on the lecture series is equally impressive. Assuming the mezzanine is also filled, a total of 6,200 tickets will have been sold.

Of these, 120 tickets went for $2,500 each, with the holders entitled to a private dinner with each of the speakers. That’s a total of $300,000.

Next, 400 people bought tickets at $400 each, entitling them to attend post-talk receptions for the speakers. That’s another $160,000.

That leaves 5,680 general reserved seats for the series, going at $180 each, totaling $1,022,400.

The grand total thus comes to $1,482,400.

What about the expenses? Both Wexler and the Harry Walker Agency in New York, which represents Clinton and Barak, declined to discuss the speakers’ fees.

However, inquiries to other booking agencies and to professionals familiar with the process yielded a fairly close consensus on the following going rates:

President Clinton: $100,000-$125,000, plus expenses for three people and transportation by private jet.

Albright: $50,000-$70,000, plus first-class plane fare.

Barak: $50,000 and first-class fare from Israel for himself and party of two. (Since Barak is scheduled for other appearances in the United States in April, the transportation expenses might be shared.)

Carville: A bargain at $20,000, plus first-class airfare.

So, fees alone for the four speakers range between $220,000 and $265,000, not including airfare. Even doubling this figure, and more, for rental at Universal, transportation, advertising, extensive security, first-class hotel accommodations and dinners, the UJ should end up with a very handsome profit, which Wexler says will go for scholarships.

Not everybody is cheering for the lecture series. Wexler says he has received about 20 messages objecting, some quite forcefully, to the democratic and liberal orientation of the speakers.

Others charged that Clinton and his advisers "have aided and abetted the foes of Israel," in the words of one writer. And one or two notes alluded to Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky.

"We have previously received similar messages, from the other side, when we had conservative speakers like [talk show host] Dennis Prager," Wexler says. "We are not honoring or endorsing any speakers, but we will continue to present them as long as they are respectable and we can learn from them."

The lecture series was the brainchild of Gady Levy, the 32-year-old dean of UJ’s department of continuing education, whom Wexler credits with reinvigorating and expanding UJ’s sizable outreach and extension program.

Close to 10,000 people annually participate in a diversified program of classes, tours, lectures, seminars, forums and special events, mainly held in the evenings and on Sundays.

Levy also launched Yesod ("foundation" in Hebrew), an intensive two-year biblical and Jewish studies program, held in partnership with 10 Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist synagogues.

Now in the works is a videoconferencing program, linking UJ faculty with adult students in Palm Springs and San Jose.

Innovative projects are under way in other parts of the campus. At the Whizin Center for the Jewish Future, director Ron Wolfson is working toward formation of a Jewish Teacher Service Corps, modeled on the Teach for America program.

He hopes to alleviate the shortage of qualified teachers in Jewish day schools and synagogues by enlisting alumni of Birthright Israel and other Israel-centered programs, as well as recent college graduates in Jewish studies, for one- to two-year stints as teachers. (For more on visiting lecturer Mimi Feigelson, see page 52.)

Seminars and workshops for teachers and parents, directed by Risa Munitz-Gruberger, are emphasizing the key role of family education.

The university’s performing arts program hosted the world premiere of the full-scale musical "Haven," and Wexler is looking toward edgier projects, such as staging translated Israeli plays and readings of the works of younger Jewish writers.

"We have all this Hollywood talent here, and we want them not just as donors, but as participants," he says.

On the construction front, the current project is the Auerbach Student Center, which will serve as a combination fitness and student union center, with an adjoining Olympic-length swimming pool, soccer field and basketball court.

The UJ does not field any athletic teams, but under consideration is formation of a debating team, which should be a natural at a Jewish liberal arts college.

Visitors — impressed by the attractive UJ campus, the diversity of its activities, and frequent media attention — are often startled to learn that only 223 undergraduate and graduate students are enrolled on a regular, year-around basis.

The College of Arts and Sciences teaches 103 undergraduates, well below its earlier peak. The master of business administration program, designed for future administrators of nonprofit organizations, has 36 students. The Fingerhut School of Education, which grants master’s degrees in education and behavioral psychology, has 20 students.

The one branch of the academic program that is exceeding enrollment projections and is on the soundest financial footing is the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, with 64 future rabbis enrolled in the five-year study program.

"When we started the Ziegler school in 1996, we thought we’d take 10 new students each year, for a total of 50 at all five levels, because there wouldn’t be enough jobs for any more," Wexler says.

But since then, rabbinical job opportunities have greatly expanded beyond the usual congregational pulpits, especially in the fields of education and community service.

"Now even The Jewish Federation has a rabbi in residence," Wexler marvels. "Who would have thought of that 30 years ago, when The Federation barely tolerated its Board of Rabbis."

Plans now call for the annual admission of 20 new students in the rabbinic school, and a total student body of 100.

The UJ also co-sponsors two programs in Israel. A one-year program for high school graduates, conducted jointly with Young Judea, is currently dormant, in light of the intifada and the Sept. 11 attacks. However, a third-year program for rabbinical students, a joint venture with the JTS, remains on course.

Among some Conservative synagogue members, particularly those who have been part of the Conservative movement from childhood on, criticism is being leveled at the UJ and Wexler administration on both philosophical and practical grounds.

"I used to think of the UJ as the center of the Conservative movement on the West Coast, but now the only thing Conservative about it consists of the Ziegler rabbinical school, Camp Ramah and the Introduction to Judaism classes," says Michael Waterman, vice president of finance at Valley Beth Shalom.

As it stands now, "the UJ has marooned the Conservative movement and left it without a focal point," says Waterman, adding, "If the Conservative movement is to survive, it can’t be a loose confederation of synagogues, with each rabbi or board of directors making their own rules. There has to be a central authority."

His criticism is reinforced by Jules Porter, a former member of the UJ board of directors and past president of both the university’s Patrons Society and Sinai Temple.

"I am disappointed that the UJ has been turned into a generic cultural and community institution, whose ambition seems to be to become the Princeton of the West Coast," Porter says.

Wexler acknowledges these criticisms as a "fair statement," but believes that the critics are nostalgic for a type of institution that never really existed.

The UJ has never aimed to be the flagship of Conservative Judaism or the interpreter of Conservative religious doctrine, Wexler argues. "Our rabbinical school is Conservative. The rest of the university is basically nondenominational."

Doctrinal interpretations lie partially within the purview of the JTS in New York, but mainly with the Rabbinical Assembly, the worldwide association of Conservative rabbis, Wexler says.

"When the Rabbinical Assembly’s Committee on Jewish Laws and Standards rules, for instance, that it’s OK to drive to the synagogue on Shabbat — but only to the synagogue — or that openly homosexual rabbis cannot become members of the Rabbinical Assembly, then Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson [dean of the Ziegler school] has to comply with these rules, regardless of how he feels about them personally," Wexler notes.

A second criticism by Waterman and Porter, more immediate and emotional than philosophical differences, turns on the UJ’s past and planned actions in "evicting" other Conservative organizations and school classes from its campus.

The West Coast offices of the United Synagogue, the umbrella organization of Conservative congregations, and the United Synagogue Youth, were asked to find other quarters some time ago.

But what brings the critics’ blood to a boil now is the UJ’s demand that the Los Angeles Hebrew High School move its Sunday classes off campus.

Currently, the school’s seventh- to 12th-graders meet twice a week at seven different synagogue locations, but the 400-500 students study together on Sundays for three and a half hours in 25 UJ classrooms. The UJ space was provided free until last June, when the school was asked to hold its Sunday classes somewhere else. When Hebrew High objected, the UJ asked for $100,000 for a year’s extension, says Waterman, an attorney who teaches ethics classes at the school. The parties ultimately agreed on a $50,000 payment, with the matter to be reopened next June.

One result of the friction between some Conservative synagogues — with VBS in the forefront — and the UJ, is that VBS has changed the beneficiary of its annual fundraising breakfast. Formerly, all the proceeds went directly to the UJ. Now money is specifically earmarked for the Ziegler rabbinical school, although, Waterman says, the Ziegler school is already well-endowed, while the 54-year-old UJ as a whole is running in the red.

Waterman readily concedes that his criticism of the UJ represents a minority viewpoint among Conservative synagogue leaders.

More typical are the opinions of Elaine Berke, also a VBS member and a past president of The Jewish Federation’s Valley Alliance, who serves on the board of UJ’s think tank, the Center for Policy Options.

"I wasn’t brought up in the Conservative movement, so I don’t have a particular ax to grind," she says. "Every institution has to grow up and assume its own identity. It may be a good thing that the UJ has become nondenominational."

Wexler says that the contentious Hebrew High issue simply comes down to a matter of space, and that organizations not part of the UJ have to go to make room for the university’s expanding continuing education and cultural programs.

While Wexler regrets any loss of financial support, he notes that the UJ is relying less and less on synagogue donations and more on contributions by individuals.

While he would not cite specific figures on the UJ’s financial situation, he observed "We are subject to ups and downs. Like any corporation, in flusher periods we upsize, and in leaner periods we downsize.

"We are holding our breath now to see how the events of Sept. 11 and the downturn in the economy will affect us. We’ll know better by the end of the calendar year."

One of the more drastic downturns confronted the UJ in 1997, when, facing a $2 million deficit, the administration terminated the jobs of 14 of its 100 faculty and staff.

Another below-the-surface indicator of fiscal problems has been the "unnaming" of the College of Arts and Sciences. In the 1980s, it became the Lee College, in honor of British philanthropists Norman and Sadie Lee, presumably after a large donation.

Two years ago, the "Lee" name was dropped, following "a confidential understanding with the Lee family," Wexler says.

The university is now looking for a new sponsor, one bearing a hefty endowment. One report — that if no such philanthropist is found the college may have to close down — was firmly denied by Wexler, who says that there are "no plans whatsoever" to discontinue the college.

Toward the end of the nearly two-hour interview, Wexler turned toward the future of the 54-year old university"All our programs are directed toward one goal, and that is to make a real impact on the shape and direction of American Judaism," he says. "We are very much a California institution, which means that we will always be innovative, that we will always look forward."