Half a Century on Reform’s Frontlines
When the Reform movement published its new “Mishkan T’filah” last November, the prayer book looked comfortably familiar to Reform rabbinic students in Los Angeles. It was clear to them that a homemade siddur they had created for their own use had influenced the first official prayer book published by the Union for Reform Judaism since 1975.
Once again, the L.A. branch of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) had made its mark on the Reform movement. The new, official prayer book, like the homemade siddur, includes traditional prayers in Hebrew, as well as new alternative readings and meditations — changes in keeping with Reform’s adoption of more traditional practices.
The Los Angeles campus was created 50 years ago in classrooms at Wilshire Boulevard Temple by founders who understood that the intellectual center of Judaism would be pulled inevitably westward.
“The leaders who founded the Los Angeles campus began to realize there would be a tremendous growth spurt of the Jewish population in Southern California and the entire Western states,” said Lewis Barth, dean of HUC-JIR in Los Angeles, who was among the first students at the new campus in 1954. “The majority of our graduates come back to serve congregations and Jewish communal institutions in the Western states, and have been leaders of transforming Jewish life here.”
Barth’s early classmates included Stephen S. Wise Temple’s Rabbi Isaiah Zeldin; Wilshire Boulevard Temple’s Rabbi Harvey Fields and Rabbi Alfred Wolf; Leo Baeck Temple’s Rabbi Sanford Ragins; and other pioneers of the Los Angeles Jewish community.
While those rabbis had to go to the New York or Cincinnati campuses to be ordained, four years ago the Los Angeles campus began ordaining rabbis, and the move has meant tremendous growth for the school. Course offerings have doubled, as has enrollment, with graduating classes in the rabbinic school growing from about eight to 10 students per year to 15 or 20.
Today, HUC-JIR Los Angeles sits at the edge of the USC campus, south of downtown. The schools enjoy a symbiotic relationship, with some 650 USC undergraduates taking Judaic studies classes at HUC-JIR and graduate students able to take part in a joint program in communal service. HUC-JIR has highly regarded graduate schools of Jewish education, Jewish communal service and Jewish studies.
The school is also home to innovative programs, including institutes on Judaism and health, Sephardic studies and sexual orientation. Hebrew and day school teachers can receive special training at HUC, and the school pioneered a program to train liberal mohels to perform brises.
Among Jewish colleges, the Los Angeles HUC-JIR campus has a reputation for creativity and innovation, said Rabbi Richard Levy, director of the School of Rabbinic Studies. The student body and faculty have been integral in Reform’s evolution toward traditional observance, Levy added.
See insets for graduating students’ thoughts on the future of the Reform movement.