February 20, 2020

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

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

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

America meant nothing to the young sabra. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Motivated by the Holocaust, moved by hope

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The family man

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Gratitude. Gratitude. Gratitude.”