Conversion: Finding his way to Judaism

Unlike many conversion stories, Michael Hudson’s does not begin with romantic love. Instead, it was inspired by a radio show.

Hudson, 57, who converted to Judaism in 1994, used to listen to a radio program called “Religion on the Line,” hosted by author, speaker and now Jewish Journal columnist Dennis Prager. The show featured a rabbi and a Protestant minister, and Hudson always thought that the rabbi’s ideas were interesting. He was intrigued and took a class on the Bible at the University of Judaism (UN), now American Jewish University. It was in that class, which was taught by Prager, that he began to learn more about the religion. 

He was introduced to formal shul services through Temple Beth Torah in Venice, where he spent Rosh Hashanah. And that’s when he decided he wanted to become a Jew. “I didn’t understand the Hebrew words, but I could see them carrying the Torah around, and the cantor was singing,” Hudson said. “I could see the joy in his eye, and there was a moment there that it seemed like the right thing to do.”

After choosing to go the Conservative route, Hudson signed up for an Introduction to Judaism class led by Rabbi Neal Weinberg at UJ. He started visiting synagogues and Jewish establishments and participating in group sessions with classmates. A spiritual circumcision was required of him, along with attending a Shabbaton and a final meeting and interview with the Beit Din of the Rabbinical Assembly, Western States Region, at the UJ. 

One of the big issues that Weinberg and the rabbis of the beit din discussed with Hudson was whether his conversion would be healthy for his family, as the family would be a mix of faiths. He and his wife, June, had already been raising their children, 11 and 8 at the time, as Catholic, and planned to continue on that path. “It was an issue during my conversion, because Rabbi Weinberg said it was important that it be a unifying thing, and not something that would pull our family apart,” Hudson said. “One of the rabbis on [the beit din] said that, during Christmas, I would still have to be Santa for my kids.”

Hudson grew up in the United Methodist Church, and June is a practicing Roman Catholic. Even these two different Christian faiths had to be reconciled when they married. “It was viewed by her church as a mixed marriage,” Hudson said. “So we had to go through all meetings with the priest, and he married us on the hope of conversion of me, the non-Catholic party. After I converted to Judaism, I joked that he was right. I converted. It just wasn’t to Catholicism.”

Although June and Michael practice different religions, his conversion ended up bringing them closer together, he said. “I didn’t feel emptiness with my wife at church anymore, because I had my own spirituality,” he said. “I found the spirituality my wife had found.”

In January 1994, after six months of study, Hudson’s time to step into the mikveh arrived. He said that when he went in, “The water was a little chilly, but when I got out, I felt this warmth. It was like a blanket was covering me and warming me up. It was a very spiritual experience, coming out of the mikveh. I felt very welcomed and very fulfilled in that moment.”

His enthusiasm for Judaism has stayed strong since he converted 18 years ago. He is a board member at Temple Akiba and considers himself a Reform Jew. As he is black, he created a Web site, Black and Jewish, that lists some prominent black Jews (Drake, Rashida Jones and Y-Love, to name a few, are mentioned) and features links to his conversion essays, as well as information on conversion. 

Hudson said that he sees religion as a grounding point. “I always look at ethical dilemmas and try to picture myself pitching my ideas to a group of rabbis. I think about what advice they would give me.

“The most important message of Judaism for me,” he said, “is knowing what’s greater than myself. It’s knowing that I should be serving God and not just looking at what’s best for me.”

BBI and UJ join up to forge a home for pluralistic Judaism in landmark merger

The University of Judaism (UJ) and Brandeis-Bardin Institute (BBI), two Southern California institutions that for the last 60 years have educated and inspired Jews of all ages and affiliations — and that have both at times struggled through financial and leadership troubles — this week will announce that they have merged into one entity, to be known as the American Jewish University.

With two campuses, a roster of about 15,000 students and a remarkable range of educational, experiential, cultural and political offerings, the American Jewish University instantly becomes one of the largest and most unique Jewish educational institutions in the country.

The merger allows Brandeis to expand an educational mission that for years has been stagnating under the weight of financial insecurity and struggling lay leadership. It also allows the UJ to reintroduce itself to a local community that can’t seem to shake the image of UJ as a lower-tier university affiliated with the Conservative movement. As American Jewish University, it hopes to emphasize its pluralistic identity and the non-academic educational and cultural offerings that in fact form a much larger part of the institution than the graduate and undergraduate schools.

In its new configuration, these two Jewish academies hope not only to boost their California image, but to raise a national profile with an organization that now includes graduate and undergraduate schools, a rabbinic school, two overnight camps, kosher conference and retreat facilities, an extensive listing of adult courses, a commitment to the arts, Israel programming — and 2,800 acres in the Santa Susana mountains that include a working farm with goats, horses, chickens, cows and some crops.

“This is an important move in the direction of centralizing resources and talent in the Jewish community,” said David Myers, director of the Center for Jewish Studies at UCLA. “If we assume that Jewish literacy is an important ingredient in Jewish survival and continuity — and we educators believe it is — this could be a significant development in reinvigorating the cultural landscape of L.A. Jewry.”

The boards of both the UJ and BBI quietly approved the merger last week and are expected to have signed the closing contract this week, which according to California law will take effect 20 days after closing.

Under the new structure the two organizations will combine all assets and liabilities into the new American Jewish University, which will include the Familian Campus in Bel Air and the 2,800-acre BBI Campus in Simi Valley. They will have a combined operating budget of $25 million, $80 million in endowment, and land assets estimated to be in the high tens of millions of dollars. BBI has long been touted as the largest Jewish-owned property outside Israel.

The two boards will merge, with UJ chairperson and businessman Peter Lowy as president and Linda Gross, BBI’s chairperson, on the executive committee. UJ President Robert Wexler will continue as president, and most BBI programs will fall under the Department of Continuing Education currently run by the UJ and headed by Gady Levy. Gary Brennglass, executive director of BBI, will oversee operations and facilities, possibly at both campuses. Initially, all staff members will be retained and blended.

BBI’s two flagship programs — Camp Alonim, with about 1,200 kids and staffers in the summer, and BCI, a four-week institute for college-aged adults — will retain their own advisory boards within the board of the American Jewish University.

The UJ has operated in the black for the last several years, and UJ Chairperson Lowy, the CEO of mall giant The Westfield Group, says BBI’s financial troubles are moderate, and neither a deterrent nor a surprise — all financial, environmental, legal and other issues of both organizations have been fully disclosed. There is no major issue of deferred maintenance on the property, says Lowy, and American Jewish University is committed to investing capital in improving the BBI campus, starting with helping Camp Alonim wrap up a $6.5 million campaign to build a new dining hall, which already has raised about $4 million.

Brandeis’ Best Option

BBI, a camp and conference facility that both runs its own retreat programs and rents the facility out, approached UJ about the merger last June, not out of desperation or distress, leaders say, but out of a desire to liberate itself from constant struggle and to grow to the full potential its vision and assets imply.

“We could have continued doing what we were doing on our own, but we couldn’t do it big,” said Brandeis chairperson Linda Gross (see story page 16). “It would take a long time to build the infrastructure and the financial support to grow, and this offers us an opportunity to be so much more to this community.”

Some wonder whether the larger institution will simply swallow BBI, spelling the end of a patented approach to experiential Jewish education.

“Clearly this is a great coup for UJ,” said Gary Tobin, president of the San Francisco-based Institute for Jewish and Community Research. “In any corporate structure when you do something like this, one identity emerges more strongly than the other, and clearly the UJ is the stronger of those identities … I know what Brandeis would like to hear, but this sounds more like an acquisition than a merger to me.”

Gross, a Harvard MBA who worked at McKinsey and Company consulting, acknowledges that this is not a merger of equals, but she insists it is not an acquisition. She said she is confident that BBI’s vision and programs will reach greater numbers, and that more people will make their way to the BBI campus.

But she also acknowledges that this might be difficult for BBI’s multigenerational following of passionate and loyal supporters.

“There is a question of giving up our independence and giving up our identity, and there is an emotional loss that this is not going to be the Brandeis-Bardin Institute anymore. But it will always be the Brandeis-Bardin campus; it will always be that same place, that method, those programs. This is something people are going to have to get comfortable with,” she said. “I hope that people see this was a courageous thing.”

A merger at this level is unusual in the Jewish organizational world, where institutional egos and a tendency to over-process make cooperation rare. But this idea arrived at a time when both institutions were ready for change.

Mind, Body and Soul

What do women want? Happiness, family and to shed those last 10 pounds. Women can learn how to accomplish all this and more at an educational conference produced by women and designed to meet the needs and wants of women.

"Exercising Your Mind; Minding Your Body," the fourth annual Women’s Community Conference, offers Southern California women a unique learning experience. A joint effort of the Hadassah Southern California Northern Area and the University of Judaism (UJ) department of continuing education, the daylong event on Sunday, March 10, aims to expand women’s spiritual and physical knowledge. Speakers, ranging from UCLA professors and Los Angeles-area rabbis to pediatricians and clinical psychologists, will tackle topics such as "The Women’s Revolution in Judaism," "What Color Is Your Diet?" and "Families and Other Unusual Life Forms."

"We want to explore health and spiritual topics that are meaningful to today’s Southern California women," said Roz Kantor, Northern Area chairperson. The conference is for women of all ages, from all Jewish movements and also non-Jewish women.

The more than 5,000 Hadassah Southern California Northern Area group members range from newlyweds in their late 20s to grandmothers in their late 80s. To accommodate the interests of all the women, the conference will present insights into all stages of a woman’s life. A new mother may be interested in seminars like "Using the Jewish Tradition to Raise Caring Kids" and "The Challenge of Raising a Challenged Child," while a mother of grown children may be drawn to "Midlife Challenges Not Midlife Crises" and "This Can’t Possibly Be My Life."

The conference not only will explore the different stages of a woman’s life, but also the different elements. Seminars will cover a woman’s mind, body and soul.

"We have something for everyone. Talks on diet and nutrition, women of the Torah, Israeli politics, stem cell research and even herbal medicine," said Debbie Kessler, the Women’s Community Conference co-chair. "Since its inception four years ago, the conference has aimed to educate women on multiple aspects of their lives."

The international Hadassah organization, over 300,000 strong, started as a women’s study group in 1912 and contributes much of its funds to Jerusalem’s Hadassah College of Technology. And so, the leaders of the Northern Area Chapter, felt it only appropriate to create an event dedicated to self-education.

"Since education is a cornerstone of our organization, it seemed fitting to start an educational day — a day for women to come together and learn," Kantor said.

To further enhance the day’s educational component, Hadassah invited the UJ to co-sponsor the event. "UJ is a renown Jewish educational institution right here in our area, and it made sense to join forces with them," Kantor said.

The UJ also saw the cooperation as an easy match. "Our mission is to provide a multitude of opportunities that enrich the lives of various segments of the population. To work with a group such as Hadassah was not only a pleasure, but a true fulfillment of this mission," said Gady Levy, UJ continuing education dean.

Levy emphasized the university’s excitement over the joint venture. "The conference provides our community with such a meaningful day of education, and the caliber of this program is something we’re very proud of," Levy said.

The UJ not only lends the conference academic prowess, but physical facilities. In past years, the conference was limited to 175 attendees, but this year’s university campus venue enables the conference to increase to 300 participants. "The event just keeps getting better and bigger. We have so many women who return every year, and now we can accommodate both returning and first-time attendees," Kessler said.

The 300 women will begin their day with a kosher continental breakfast, attend one of four morning seminars, have a kosher box lunch and then choose one of four afternoon seminars. The conference also features three keynote speakers (at the start, middle and end of the day), as well as a book sale and signing.

"Hadassah is a dynamic, 90-year-young organization, and we welcome and encourage all women to come to the conference and be a part of us," Kantor said.

The conference will run from 9 a.m.-3 p.m. at the University of Judaism, 15600 Mulholland Drive, Bel-Air, and is open to everyone.

Registration is $40. Same day walk-up attendees may attend on a space-available basis, and sign-language interpreters will be provided. For more information, contact Hadassah Southern California Northern Area at (818)783-3488.

A Beautiful Mind

Acuity, passion, the ability to hold several conflicting ideas at the same time, a wide-ranging and detailed understanding of the world we live in, and an ability to articulate a broad intellectual and moral vision — watching Bill Clinton last Monday night at the Universal Ampitheatre made me realize how much I miss these attributes in a president.

This is not a criticism of George W. Bush. I imagine he would be the first to acknowledge, with some pride, that he’s no Bill Clinton. Among the crowd that pressed to touch flesh with Clinton in a post-speech reception, several people admitted that Clinton would probably have done no better, and maybe worse, than Bush in executing the war against Al Qaeda. Different men, different strengths and weaknesses.

But last Monday night, it was Clinton’s gifts that were on display.

There he was, leading 6,000 listeners through the nest of paradoxes that comprise our new century. "What happens after the war on terror?" he asked. The remarkable success the developed world enjoys in the areas of prosperity, health and technology brings with it a set of darker doppelgangers — rampant poverty, the spread of AIDS and breakdown of public health services, and the abuse of technology by what he called "the organized forces of destruction."

This audience, gathered as part of the University of Judaism’s (UJ) lecture series, was as close to a hometown crowd as Clinton could find outside of Hope, Ark. He could have pandered, but he didn’t. He avoided applause lines, was subdued, thoughtful, reflective.

But his talents were not the only ones on display last Monday night.

Rabbi Robert Wexler, UJ president; Gady Levy, dean of the Department of Continuing Education; and Peter Lowy, president of the UJ Board of Trustees, their staff and lay leaders deserve praise not just for envisioning and executing such a program, but for doing so despite certain partisan criticism. Current events do not reflect well on the architects of the Oslo accords. But to give them a forum to explain, justify, analyze and reflect on what went wrong is a worthy communal service.

In one of the evening’s more revealing moments, Clinton acknowledged the failure of Oslo, but maintained that all roads lead back to a negotiated settlement. "There is not a military or terrorist solution to the problem," he said.

It is de riguer these days not to mention Clinton without pining over his wasted potential. Yes, the time and energy he spent fighting a battle he brought upon himself could have been used shoring up a legacy he now must work to ensure. The man who now dissects progress’s dark side was almost undone by his own.

But for the audience who welcomed his insights with several ovations, Clinton’s intelligence trumped his recklessness. Was it any wonder as he took the stage that night, a voice in the crowd rang out, "Run again!"

The Circuit

Designing Women

Haute couture was en vogue at the Women’s International Zionist Organization Los Angeles annual membership luncheon, held at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills. Hanna Rubinstein chaired the event. Following a fashion show by Beverly Hills boutique Votre Nam, keynote speaker and “Sunday’s Silence” author Gina Nahai shared memories of growing up Jewish in Iran.

Birthday at the UJ

Israel Cancer Research Fund celebrated the 90th birthday of “Haven” author Ruth Gruber at the opening of “Haven: The Musical” at the University of Judaism’s Gindi Theatre.

Rabbi Cum Doctor

Rabbi Laura Geller of Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills was awarded a doctor of divinity degree by Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion for 25 years of service at the commencement exercises of the 126th academic year of the institution.

For Posterity’s Sake

Dr. Tuvia Friling, director of the Ben-Gurion Research Center, has been appointed Israel’s state archivist. Since 1993, Friling has served as director of the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev-affiliated Ben-Gurion Research Center and the state-sponsored Ben-Gurion Heritage Institute, both located on the Sede Boqer Campus.

Million Dollar Boost

The Teichman Family Foundation has donated $1 million toward Emek Hebrew Academy’s $6 million expansion. Sol and Ruth Teichman are active supporters of Emek, where their children attended school, and Sol has been serving as chairman of the board for 30 years. Emek, the oldest day school in the San Fernando Valley, opened in 1959.

Afghani Stand Hear Me Now! A Special Donation

Second-year rabbinic student Masha Savitz has donated a Torah cover to the University of Judaism (UJ) in memory of her brother, Jeremy Savitz, who died at the age of 25 after a prolonged battle with cancer. Savitz attends the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the UJ. The cover was created by Savitz’s mother, Renee Savitz of West Caldwell, N.J. “He had an incredible sense of kavanah [devotion],” said Savitz of her sibling.

Missouri State of Mind

Women’s Alliance For Israel held a reception at The Regency Club in Westwood for Sen. Jean Carnahan (D-Mo.).

Fashion Plate

Ilse Metchek, executive director of the California Fashion Association, was honored by Cedars-Sinai Fashion Industries Guild at a banquet at the Regent Beverly Wilshire. More than 600 guests attended the event, which raised money for the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit and other children’s programs at the medical complex.

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."

A Different Standard

Ask Mimi Feigelson a simple question, you don’t get a simple answer.

“So how do you like L.A.?” I ask, as we sit down for coffee and pastries at a Pico-Robertson cafe, thinking this is just the warm-up for the real questions.

But for Feigelson, a visiting lecturer in rabbinics at the University of Judaism (UJ), small talk is for wimps. Every question is real and deserves a thoughtful answer.

She repeats the question to herself several times, smiles as she considers it carefully, and then tells of how kind and gracious everyone has been since she arrived here in July, how things have fallen into place quite easily. Still, she says, “like” is too facile a word, because Los Angeles is not, and never will be, home.

“I am grateful for my welcome, but Yerushalayim is home,” Feigelson concludes.

At 38, Feigelson has honed her ability to integrate disparate realities into one coherent and compelling existence. She is an American-born Orthodox Israeli woman teaching at an American seminary for Conservative rabbis. She is halachically observant, and has smicha, rabbinic ordination. She is aware of the political implications of her smicha, but insists it is a private odyssey. She has been vilified by many in the Orthodox establishment, but she maintains a commitment to honor and respect that same Orthodox establishment.

With a dark thick ponytail streaming over her right shoulder and her trademark thin braid hanging to the left, nearly touching the bottom of her black vest, Feigelson has a conservatively bohemian look, one that fits her dual mission of staying within the establishment while defying its conventions.

As she often does, Feigelson uses an analogy and a Chasidic story to explain herself. In traditional mystical sources, it is said the world will exist for 6,000 years. We are in year 5762, and therefore far along in the world’s life. “It used to be that people would come into the world and have shoresh neshama, the root of a soul, from one source. But today, each of us comes into the world and we have so many splinters of souls,” she says, likening it to the last tiny shards left when the big pieces of a broken vessel have already been swept up.

“That’s why we’re torn in so many different directions simultaneously, and some of us choose to listen to one voice and ignore the others, and then there are those of us who try to juggle as many voices as possible simultaneously, who are able to contain them,” she says.

Even for Feigelson, some aspects of her life’s path have been a challenge to contain — notably, being an Orthodox woman with smicha.

“I’ve been marginalized and ostracized to a certain degree, but in God’s eyes I am who I am,” Feigelson says.

Back home in Jerusalem, where she has lived since she was 8, Feigelson, who is single, is the director of the women’s beit midrash at Yakar, a community of Torah study, prayer and social activism that is on the leftmost vanguard of Orthodoxy.

Feigelson’s smicha is from Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, the late Chasidic master of song, story and Torah. When she started studying with him at the age of 16, he gave her entry into a Judaism from which she felt alienated for much of her Modern Orthodox upbringing, despite her passion for study and her devotion to halacha.

“What he gave me was the key to the back door,” she says of Carlebach. “When you are a guest you use the front door, but when you’re family you know where the key is hiding, and you can walk through the back even if the front door is locked,” she says.

But rather than just drink in his words while he visited Israel or she visited New York, she also studied on her own and got her master’s degree in Jewish philosophy at the Hebrew University.

Finally, after 15 years of studying with Reb Carlebach, she told him she wanted smicha from him.

“He said, ‘Mimi, you already have my smicha,'” she says.

Still, he set up an intensive program for her — including oral and written exams — studying all the halachic and talmudic texts normally studied for ordination, plus some extras, such as sections on honoring one’s parents and business ethics.

Feigelson kept her smicha under wraps for seven years, until she was outed last year in an article in the New York Jewish Week.

Feigelson says she feared the kind of reaction that in fact came out once word spread — the condemnation and dismissal, the accusation of being blasphemous toward Torah.

“There is a moment where you think of the absurdity of it. Did I do something wrong?” she asks incredulously. “That I sat and learned? That I was tested on it? That I was credited for what I had learned, acknowledged for what I accomplished? What sin did I do?”

Despite her strong words, Feigelson seems possessed by a calm, even peaceful resolve, fueled by a deep awareness that she is in this for the right reasons.

“I’m not out to prove anything. I’m out to live my life in honesty and integrity in God’s eyes,” she says.

She maintains that her smicha was the next natural step on her personal journey and not a political statement — she does not use the title rabbi, out of respect for the Orthodox world.

Still, she is aware that her smicha puts her at the forefront of a movement in which women are taking on leadership roles in the Orthodox community.

In Israel, women now argue divorce cases before rabbinic courts, and others answer halachic questions regarding menstruation and reproduction. In New York, several women trained to be congregational interns, where they took on pastoral and chaplaincy roles, as well as teaching.

“I am not going to give up the halachic community, I’m not going to give up my halachic pursuits and whatever it takes to make that happen,” she says. “If that means that there are things that have to wait, I’ll wait, but I’m not going to walk away. I can’t believe the Orthodox world can’t contain me.”

For now, though, Feigelson is spending two years teaching rabbinics to future Conservative rabbis — first year and fifth year students — at the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at UJ.

Through the tractates of Mishna and Gemara, she is exploring theological questions and challenging her students to think about their own missions.

“I feel like I’ve been given this gift to be able to learn together and ask these questions that are going to formulate how these future rabbis are going to work with people,” she says.

Deciding to leave Israel for two years involved months of tearful internal struggle. For the UJ too, the match did not seem perfect. Feigelson has neither a doctorate nor Conservative ordination, which makes her an odd candidate academically and as a role model. Her expertise is in Chasidic philosophy; they needed a teacher in rabbinics.

“Both UJ and I had to deal with the reality of who I am and where I am coming from and what I have to offer, and who they are and what are their needs,” Feigelson says.

Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, dean of Ziegler school, is thrilled with the creativity and the passion for Torah that Feigelson has brought to the school.

“We are trying to be an unprecedented rabbinical school, and not to worry about the mold but to provide excellence in both traditional and academic forms,” he says, “and sometimes that means bringing in people who may not have the usual academic degrees, but do have a vast knowledge base and can serve as inspirational role models.” Feigelson has already established a rapport with students and colleagues, leading a kumsitz, or singalong, the first week of school and having people over to her house for informal study. She demands a lot from her students academically and challenges them to think about why they have chosen the rabbinate, and where God fits into the picture.

She expects her students to challenge her, as well.

“My teachers receive my respect and honor, but never the benefit of the doubt,” she says. “I expect the same from my students.”

She also admonishes them not to get to carried away by “spirituality.”

“There is fine a line between spirituality and stupidity,” she tells her students. “On the one hand, does everything have meaning? Yes. On the other hand, does everything have meaning? No. Can you contain that? That is the question,” she says.

Feigelson has high aspirations for her students, much as she does for herself — a love of God and Torah, a sense of obligation, a sense of comfort with the ongoing struggle to embrace Judaism.

“I want them to feel that the tradition is alive, that it is a vibrant organism, that the letters are three-dimensional — not dead letters on the page,” she says. “You have to have something to hold onto, something to grapple with, something that challenges you and touches every part of who you are and has a conversation with you in those places,” she says. “That is what I want them to see.”

The Human Element

Ten years ago, Tracee Rosen was a banker. Rick Flom was practicing law, and Carla Howard was making documentary videos. Amy Bolton was studying neuropsychology at Haverford College. John Crites-Borak wasn’t Jewish. Mark Borovitz had just completed his parole.

Last Tuesday, they all became Conservative rabbis.

The Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the University of Judaism (UJ) ordained 12 candidates at Sinai Temple on May 16, its second class of rabbis. At least five of the newly minted rabbis are age 40 or older.The warm, emotional ceremony turned Sinai’s austere sanctuary into a large living room filled with an extended family of local Conservative leadership celebrating a simcha together. All eight of last year’s ordainees were present to cheer on this year’s class.

Most of the speeches made during the evening focused on the rabbi as a human being like any other, with strengths and flaws. In his charge to the new rabbis, Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, the Ziegler School’s dean, cited the passage in Torah that bars anyone with a physical blemish from serving as a priest in the tabernacle. Today, Artson said, he interprets the Torah’s call for perfection in Judaism’s kohanim not as a need for a rabbi to be a perfect human being but to serve God with “the wholeness that comes from imperfection.”

“Many a new rabbi has asked, ‘Am I pure enough? Am I holy enough?’ ” Artson said. “In real life, you can’t let deficiencies keep you from bold leadership… Bring your entire being to the service of God and your fellow creatures. Leave no part of yourself outside. Leave no piece of yourself invisible. Teach congregations not to wait for perfection.”

Rabbi Robert Wexler, UJ’s president, quoting Rabbi Harold Schulweis of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, warned the new rabbis “against ever seeing congregants as ‘them’; it’s necessary to be part of a ‘we.'”

Keynote speaker Susannah Heschel, director of Dartmouth College’s Jewish studies program and author or editor of several books, similarly reminded the ordainees of their responsibility to maintain empathy with congregants. She also charged them to keep up with new currents in Conservative Jewish life such as feminism, inclusion of gaymen and lesbians, and increased attention to social activism. “Teach your congregants that their own humanity is at stake when there is injustice in the world,” she said.

Nor were the short speeches made by rabbinic colleagues and UJ faculty members as they presented the 12 candidates pro forma recitations of a student’s qualifications, but the loving tributes of mentors who in some cases took on the coloration of a parent or sibling. Daniel Mehlman was presented by the rabbi who officiated at his bar mitzvah in Argentina. Two other candidates were sponsored by members of the first graduating class.

Rabbi Debra Orenstein presented Crites-Borak, whom she has known since he studied for conversion to Judaism in 1992. “There are some people born to and for a calling, and John is one,” she said. “He is a Jew and a rabbi who makes me proud to be a Jew and a rabbi.”The ceremony also included an affectionate tribute to Rabbi Elliot Dorff, who has been promoted to Distinguished Professor after almost 30 years at UJ.At the reception after the ceremony, well-wishers eddied around the beaming new rabbis holding their portfolio-sized certificates. They greeted friends; admired the 3 1/2-month-old daughter of Amy Bolton and her husband, Scott, who was also ordained May 16; inquired about career plans for the new rabbis who didn’t list them in the program.

The Boltons, Hal Greenwald, and Jay Strear will be heading for jobs in the Detroit area. David Stein has been named campus rabbi at the Solomon Schechter school in Dallas (a position once held by Valley Beth Shalom’s Rabbi Ed Feinstein). David Cantor will return to Winnipeg, Manitoba, to become assistant rabbi at the temple in which he grew up.

Of the older students, several who are staying in Southern California are still weighing options, while Rosen will join the rabbinic staff at Valley Beth Shalom and Borovitz, a recovered substance abuser, will continue as spiritual leader of Gateways Beit T’Shuvah, a congregation with outreach to those in recovery from addiction. Flom will move cross-country to helm a small congregation in Taunton, Mass.

The new rabbis, especially those entering or continuing in congregational life, have chosen a tough field, requiring long hours, constant continued study, and fortitude in the dealing with students, congregants, and others who may lack their spiritual and ritual commitment. “I wish all of you a life of optimism,” said Rabbi William Lebeau, vice chancellor for rabbinic development at Jewish Theological Seminary, who was awarded UJ’s Simon Greenberg Award for Distinguished Rabbinic Leadership.

But, every speaker strongly suggested, all their efforts will be worthwhile. “There will be moments when the Shechinah will smile on you, when you will experience ordination again,” said Heschel, who grew up surrounded by rabbis as the daughter of the revered Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel.

A Unique University

The University of Judaism is not easy to categorize. Unique among this country’s Jewish institutions of higher learning, it combines an undergraduate college, a graduate school of education, an MBA program, a long list of continuing education offerings, two nationally renowned think tanks and a 4-year-old theological seminary.

Though the public tends to regard UJ chiefly as a seminary turning out Conservative rabbis, university President Robert Wexler emphasizes that the school as a whole can be considered nondenominational.

This paradox stems from the fact that UJ, at the time of its founding, 50 years ago, had what Wexler calls “two godfathers.” The first was the Jewish Theological Seminary, the New York-based training ground for Conservative rabbis in the United States. Until 1995, when UJ broke ranks by creating its own rabbinical school, JTS used UJ as a West Coast branch, at which prospective rabbis could begin (though not complete) their education.

UJ’s second “godfather” was the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, and particularly its Bureau of Jewish Education. As the only Jewish college in postwar Los Angeles, UJ was entrusted by the Federation to provide teacher training and higher learning for Jews from across the religious spectrum.

A third major influence was the late Mordecai Kaplan, whose unorthodox concept of Judaism as a civilization profoundly shaped the growing school. Wexler calls UJ “Kaplanian” because of its emphasis on leadership development, particularly among members of the lay community.

It is UJ’s undergraduate college that most closely represents Kaplan’s ideals. The 110 students working toward undergraduate degrees are not planning careers as rabbis or Jewish professionals. But because their course of study, whatever their major, must include a healthy dose of Judaism, they are becoming the knowledgeable lay leaders upon whom the Jewish community of the future can depend.

The brand-new Sid B. Levine Service Learning Program will help integrate these undergrads into the Jewish world outside the campus through a carefully designed community service requirement that spans their college years.

The Whizin Center for the Jewish Future, which has pioneered the field of Jewish family education, annually attracts teachers from all over the country to its summer institutes. The Whizin Center is also one of two partners in the ambitious Synagogue 2000 project, which seeks to reinvigorate the synagogue as a center for Jewish communal life in the coming century.

The new Center for Policy Options, a think tank headed by noted scholars, delves into issues that relate to Israel and U.S. policy in the Middle East.

Graduate degree programs at UJ are housed in the Fingerhut School of Education and the Lieber School of Graduate Studies. Advanced degrees in education are granted each year to some 20 students who aspire to be Jewish educators or school administrators. The school of education is also home to a new master’s degree program in psychology that focuses on helping the severely disabled within Jewish settings. The centerpiece of the Lieber School is its specialized MBA program geared to launching careers in the nonprofit sector. For Wexler, this program is one that can attract people of many backgrounds, thus allowing Jewish students to connect with the broader community.

The Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, which is due to ordain its first class of rabbis this spring, created instant controversy because it offered an alternative to the century-old Jewish Theological Seminary. In serving the 1.5 million Jews who live in the western United States, the Ziegler School has chosen to test new ways of training rabbis. Along with their traditional text studies, students are expected to master practical skills, such as how to share the Jewish religion with the laity.

Wexler notes that UJ is unique in having a campus that blends rabbis-to-be with undergrads who lean toward secular lifestyles. “They live together, just like in the real world.” This, he believes, is instructive for the future rabbis, who must learn to work side by side with those who might well be their future congregants.