Skirball Cultural Center Founder and President Rabbi Uri Herscher on Passing the Baton to Bet Tzedek’s Jessie Kornberg
It’s hard to imagine that the 15-acre site housing the Skirball Cultural Center at the base of the Santa Monica Mountains didn’t exist 24 years ago. The landmark center that opened in 1996 and links West Los Angeles and the San Fernando Valley has become a permanent fixture alongside the Getty museum in the Los Angeles landscape, and to date has drawn nearly 10 million visitors.
But the vision for this remarkable structure that boasts a permanent museum alongside regularly changing exhibitions, film events, music and theater performances and cultural programs belongs to 78-year-old Rabbi Uri Herscher, its founding president and chief executive.
And while Herscher first floated the idea to the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) in 1980, the seeds for the center stretch all the way back to his boyhood in Tel Aviv, where he was born and raised until the age of 13, when his family came to the United States and settled in San Jose in 1954.
Herscher is one of the most revered people in the community — a rabbi, a professor, a teacher, a mentor, a philanthropist, an author, a historian and a seeker, who has used his talents to raise millions of dollars and bring Jews and non-Jews together.
Anyone who has met him and has spent time in the company of this erudite man whose love for Judaism and all humanity is infectious will tell you that Herscher is one of the most generous and warm people they’ve met.
Indeed, on my visit to Herscher’s vast office, despite the large, wooden desk in one corner, I’m ushered to a series of soft armchairs in the opposite corner, situated around a low, circular table. Late afternoon light bounces off the large window overlooking the Skirball’s sun-dappled courtyard. Herscher, dressed casually in gray slacks, an open-necked cornflower blue shirt and soft, black leather loafers sinks into one chair and gestures for me to take the one next to him.
We’re here for a serious interview; for Herscher to announce his official retirement on June 30 and discuss his successor, Jessie Kornberg, the young, dynamic president and CEO of Bet Tzedek, the nonprofit human and poverty rights organization. And yet, there is nothing formal about this interview as Herscher settles in for what can only be described as an almost two-hour chat.
Despite the extraordinary institution Herscher has built, he refuses to take sole credit for the Skirball. “There is no ‘I’ in Judaism,” he says. “We say ‘anachnu’ (we) in Jewish prayers. When I speak with Moshe Safdie (the Israeli-born architect who designed the Skirball Cultural Center), we always say, ‘Mah Shlomeinu?’ (How are we?)”
Which is why, Herscher explains, he’s been cognizant of succession since his late 40s. “I also was very frightened by the history where successors did not do well in passing the baton and I was not going to be one of those people,” he says. “My goal was all about the Skirball and not about me. You can’t do anything alone and the Skirball was built with that knowledge. I call upon everybody constantly. This is an open door and it feels safe but it also takes one person to lead this institution.”
He then reveals that he started to take the issue of succession seriously eight to 10 years ago, when he was in his late 60s. And despite four decades between them, Herscher says that 37-year-old Kornberg is absolutely the right person to succeed him.
“Her lenses are so clear on the world and we want [the Skirball] to remain young, and she is a young woman with a timeless soul,” he says. He also cites Kornberg’s “character, her integrity, out-of-the-box thinking, courage, knowledge and her passion for advocating for those who need it most,” along with her “intelligence and eloquence and her capacity to connect with everyone meaningfully in the room and her commitment to pursuing social justice in whatever she does.”
Herscher says he is confident Kornberg “will lead the Skirball in expanding our reach and fulfilling in new ways, perhaps, our mission to create a more civil and a more just society.”
In a separate phone interview, Kornberg says, “I am so excited. It’s been a long time coming. It’s still a ways off. I’ve been keeping the excitement at bay.” She adds that while she’s thrilled about taking on this role, “I’m also totally cognizant of the challenge. The Skirball is a huge institution with a really serious responsibility, not the least of which is Uri’s legacy. Replacing a founder, the creative genius behind the vision and the construction of the place is not a small thing, and I care about protecting his legacy and his vision.”
As to their generation gap, Kornberg says, “I’ve always been lucky to be in intergenerational environments. I grew up very close to my grandparents. We were kids who sat at the adults’ table. At Bet Tzedek, we are not just an agency that has a unique focus on elder law and delivering services to low-income seniors, but we are a community made possible by the volunteerism of retired lawyers and judges and a staff with real intergenerational exchange.”
Kornberg also speaks passionately about the warmth that Herscher generates, describing him as “warm and welcoming. I felt so at ease with Uri and felt so lucky that he was willing to spend time with me. I walked away from [our] first meeting feeling really special. But what I’ve come to appreciate over the years is that really is how he is with everyone. It is not we who are special but he who is special. He just really opens himself up and creates with people in an extraordinarily short amount of time a deep connection.”
And while both Herscher and Kornberg attest to their deep connection, to truly understand how and why Herscher chose Kornberg also requires an understanding of his legacy and vision. Publicity material on the Skirball emphasizes that the center is a place for all people to come together, guided by the Jewish tradition of welcoming the stranger and inspired by the democratic ideals of freedom and equality.
The center itself is designed to be like a sukkah and open on all four sides, much like the biblical Abraham’s tent. It’s built around essential Jewish tenets, welcoming the stranger being just one of them. The others are building community, pursuing justice, seeking learning, showing kindness and honoring memory.
Herscher’s vision was so singular and unique, when asked where his ability to dream big came from, he hesitates and says, “I’m not sure, but let’s try it.” After a few moments, he declares, “It has to start very early. My brother, who is seven years younger, and I were born in the basement, and there’s no question that I always desired light.”
Uri Herscher likens Los Angeles to Ellis Island. “It still remains an immigration port and I wanted to be with other immigrants. I was one myself. I couldn’t think of a better place to build a Jewish institution embracive of the total community.”
It’s an incongruous statement given that his name, Uri, means “my light,” in Hebrew. In 1948, during the establishment of the State of Israel, Herscher was only 7. “Tel Aviv was bombed,” he recalls. “My mother remembers my giving her a heart attack by not being in the shelter and then she sent out some people to find me. They found me with a slingshot aiming at the Arab airplanes. I can’t tell you what drove me to do that. I think I became a fighter at that time because the first Israeli young soldiers died then and they paraded them in a funeral procession on Sderot Rothschild in Tel Aviv. I was standing on a bench watching it. I saw their yellow feet. They were dead. And I heard crying. And the spirit that I instilled in myself was that I’m alive and I have to do something to make a difference.”
That passion also was fueled by the summers he spent on kibbutzim in Israel, where his cousins lived. “My mother’s brothers were all kibbutzniks,” he says. “I appreciated the ideology — of how important equity and social justice was; how important it was to create a safe community. Everybody was equal. I loved it.”
He also recalls how culture would be brought into the kibbutzim by inviting poets and writers and musicians-in-residence. “So I got a flavor of what that culture meant and how elevated that was for me. It very much defined my thinking about what is right and what is wrong when it comes to the treatment of human beings.”
Officially, Herscher conceived the Skirball as an outreach effort of HUC-JIR when he was executive vice president and dean of faculty. He moved his office from Cincinnati to Los Angeles in 1979, and in 1980 approached HUC-JIR’s board of governors about his radical idea for a cultural center.
He knew after graduating from HUC in 1970 that he would not become a congregational rabbi. “I struggled with theology,” he says. “So I think [the cultural center] vision started while I was still a student and then as a member of the faculty.”
He chose Los Angeles to create his vision because “L.A. was not and still is not rooted, allowing us to have the type of freedom rarely seen in other cities. No group ran the city of Los Angeles and that was a huge attraction for me. There was always that opportunity for new thoughts. And this was a mighty thought.”
Herscher likens Los Angeles to Ellis Island. “It still remains an immigration port and I wanted to be with other immigrants. I was one myself. I couldn’t think of a better place to build a Jewish institution embracive of the total community.”
He confesses the meeting with the board of governors was “tough. I think HUC had different plans for me. It was an academic institution. Basically, I was reaching out beyond the walls of study. I was saying, ‘Let’s take our learning to the streets.’ There’s a really important space for the ivory tower. But I was born in the streets and I wanted to go back there.”
Which is why, Herscher believes, the seeds for the center were first planted during his high school graduation, when his father gave him a stack of old family letters written by his grandmothers. While Herscher’s parents had escaped Germany in the 1930s and fled to Israel, most of his family (on both of his parents’ sides) perished in the Holocaust. Herscher’s paternal grandmother’s last telegram in 1942, a month before she was sent to Auschwitz, said “Kiss Uri for me.”
“My goal was all about the Skirball and not about me. You can’t do anything alone and the Skirball was built with that knowledge. I call upon everybody constantly. This is an open door and it feels safe but it also takes one person to lead this institution.” — Uri Herscher
That telegram is framed on Herscher’s wall, along with letters and photographs from family members who perished. “I took that kiss and wrote my own narrative,” Herscher says. “I don’t know what was in [my grandmother’s] mind, but I think what she was messaging to me was, ‘I hope you create safe environments.’ ”
Then, after graduating from UC Berkeley in 1964, Herscher hitchhiked through Europe for 3 1/2 months to learn his family’s history. That trip had a profound effect on him and, he notes, “I think my grandmother’s hopefulness helped create a safe place on Sepulveda Boulevard.”
He also credits his parents with having the courage to leave their families and homeland — first from Germany and then from Israel — “to come here [to San Jose]. We were fully welcomed by our neighbors, and that was a very special embracive welcome.”
Herscher talks about how his parents were blue-collar immigrants (his mother was a laundress and his father a cabinetmaker) and how their employers did not always treat them with dignity. “That’s why when I talked about the Skirball and its creation, I wanted to make sure everyone felt respected and valued.”
He also speaks of having always seen the Skirball as a storyteller. “Our core exhibition is the story of the Jewish people,” he says. “[The] Noah’s Ark [exhibition] is the story of immigration. Every visitor becomes Noah and is taught to take people in a storm and find shelter for them. The story has to do with when we first immigrate, we stick with our groups because we are unsafe. As we journey toward the rainbow, we no longer need to be in these groups because we feel safer. The rainbow is all about possibilities and the Skirball is all about possibilities, and I see the rainbow within us.”
This was also part of Herscher’s evolving vision for the Skirball, and after he was appointed to the Ethics Commission of Los Angeles in 2001, he expanded the Skirball’s mission statement to go beyond just the Jewish community and include “people of every ethnic and cultural identity.”
Back in 1980, Herscher told HUC-JIR’s board that he wanted the center to attract unaffiliated Jews. “I knew at the time 80% of Jews in L.A. were unaffiliated. I said they were uninspired and I felt the Skirball could possibly bring them back to being affiliated through culture and learning about their heritage.”
It’s one of many things that Herscher and Kornberg bonded over. Kornberg, who was born in San Diego and raised in Northern California before moving to New York as a teenager, didn’t move to Los Angeles until 2004, to study law at UCLA.
“My Jewishness has been largely cultural,” Kornberg says. “I don’t come from a religious family, and what I have learned over time is that makes me more similar to more people my age who identify as Jewish than I realized.”
She notes that 90% of Jews in America are unaffiliated “and for a long time that identity of Jewish by tradition and heritage and not active and organized made me feel like I was getting it wrong and that I wasn’t fully a member of the community that was still my identity.”
In spending time at the Skirball, though, over these past five years, Kornberg says it has been a “gift. It’s a place that is overtly and expressly Jewish that tells me I am welcomed and I belong and I’m OK.”
Herscher and Kornberg first met when Kornberg was appointed president of Bet Tzedek. Herscher recalls attending her first Bet Tzedek gala in February 2015.
“I had such an appreciation for her elegant character,” he says. “With all of her great achievements, humility is at her core. There is no egomania here.” He rattles off some of those achievements, including her expansion of Bet Tzedek, and the number of people whom she has brought in to support the organization, which he says, “is very much because of her leadership. She has a leadership gene.”
And in terms of the Skirball’s mission, Herscher says his and Bet Tzedek’s dovetail. “We apply them differently,” he explains, “but it’s essentially the same mission. We do it through performance and the arts and they do it as legal aid.”
He also recalled her speech that night describing Bet Tzedek’s mission. “It certainly entered my heart,” he says. “I’m just so confident that she is a star in this community. For me, she gets a standing ovation for what she’s achieved.”
The two got to know each other better after Kornberg approached Herscher at that gala five years ago.
“I was aided in my transition [as president of Bet Tzedek] by several of my predecessors, Mitch Kamin and David Lash,” Kornberg explains. “They helped me by putting a list together of people they felt I had to know in my first 60 days. The list was like 400 people long and right at the tippy-top of it was Uri Herscher, who I had not known before.”
Herscher recalls Kornberg approaching her at the gala and saying, “You’re at the top of my list. You’ve been suggested as a leader in the community to meet with and learn from as it applies to my job.” And so, over the next few years the two would meet for lunch.
“[Herscher] gave me great advice about thinking about a board of directors and thinking about managing the finances of a nonprofit and thinking about leadership,” Kornberg says. “He has deep experiences with all of those things and I had a very shallow experience with those things. He was a mentor, really, from my very first days.”
She also recalls initially calling him up every six to 12 months and they’d have lunch. “We’d check in and I’d share with him how things were going at Bet Tzedek. Over time, looking back, I realized we transitioned from me inviting myself over to him saying, ‘Come on up. I haven’t seen you in a while.’ It really became a friendship.”
At some point, Kornberg says, Herscher started to talk to her about his own professional plans and the idea that he was thinking about succession and retirement, but she didn’t think it had anything to do with her. It was only a year ago, she says, that he started specifically talking to her about taking over from him. For his part, Herscher says he spent the entire five years interviewing Kornberg for the position without her knowledge. Kornberg laughs upon hearing this and quips, “The next time someone says a hiring process seems slow, I’m going to make sure to revisit that story.”
“Those meetings were meetings of trust and confidentiality,” Herscher reveals. “I think it was [philosopher Martin] Buber who said all living is meeting. [Kornberg] certainly was the person I met who brought enlightenment to my journey.”
“Jessie Kornberg’s lenses are so clear on the world and we want the Skirball to remain young, and she is a young woman with a timeless soul.” — Uri Herscher
Herscher was also delighted to learn that Kornberg has a background in ballet and was a professional dancer for a time, and Kornberg says she feels lucky “to have come circuitously back into arts and culture. It’s a gift and I’m so excited about that.”
The Skirball, she adds, is doing a little bit of what she did as a dancer, “which is stewarding the original creator’s work. My mother is a poet, my sister is an artist, my uncles are musicians and I always looked at those creators as very special, precious people who are able to share their view of beauty in the world in a way that can bring beauty to mine. And I’m just thrilled and lucky to get to participate in that kind of work again.”
Moving away from the law may seem like a seismic shift, but Kornberg says, “What I came to feel was that my work at Bet Tzedek is the best job I’ll ever have with my law degree and that I could either do it for the rest of my life or try a different direction.”
She saw the opportunity Herscher handed her as the “chance to learn new skills, different from the legal work that I have done but also in a context in which my experience will be useful and I will be of value to the institution. It is hopefully of mutual benefit. To have an opportunity professionally like that at a place that is also inspiring and personally meaningful is incredibly rare.”
And it’s why, Herscher says, it’s easy to pass the baton to Kornberg. “There’s that talmudic statement: ‘It’s not for us to complete the task.’ I live that, he says. “I’m totally realistic. The baton was passed to me by my mentors telling me, ‘We have confidence in you, Uri,’ just as I have confidence in my successor. They were my cheerleaders as I am the cheerleader of my successor.”
Mentors, Herscher says, have guided him his entire career, starting with those letters from his grandmothers and his family, to his teachers at HUC, other philanthropists, Safdie and, of course, rabbi, real estate developer, film producer and philanthropist Jack Skirball, for whom the center is named.
When the HUC-JIR board of governors approved the center, they told Herscher he would have to raise the funds independently. Skirball was among the first to invest in Herscher’s vision and also was instrumental in locating the site.
Herscher first met Skirball in 1965 when Skirball was on HUC-JIR’s board and established a sermon prize. Herscher was one of the first to give his sermon, on the life of Moses.
“[Skirball] came up and introduced himself and said, ‘I want to congratulate you. You will win the prize.’ ” Herscher recalls asking him how that was possible given that there were still many people who hadn’t given their sermons. Skirball told him, “I was impressed with the content, but truthfully much more impressed by your brevity. I doubt others will be as brief.”
From that point on, Herscher says Skirball became his “lifelong mentor and he championed [the center’s] mission. I was looking for the grandmothers and grandfathers I lost and he became a surrogate grandfather.”
Kornberg also cites a list of mentors, including Kamin — her mentor at both Bet Tzedek and the law firm she worked at before moving to Bet Tzedek, her family, including her husband, her parents and her late grandfather, whom she calls a “teacher and a discoverer and a pioneer.”
After his death, Kornberg’s sister found an interview her grandfather gave to a television station where he said his advice to young people was, “Be bold because you don’t have as much time as you think. This chance to do something bold and audacious is fleeting, so make the most of it.”
Kornberg says, “I have turned back to that advice in moments of insecurity and at forks in the road and said, ‘Don’t settle for complacency.’ That advice has been empowering for me.”
She also confesses to a mentor/hero she’s never met that “comes out of left field”: Dolly Parton.
“I think that she is an incredibly inspiring person,” Kornberg says. “She is an artist, an incredibly talented creative person, but I also think of her as this very strong spark that flew out of the Smoky Mountains and has lit up so many homes and minds, and she does it in a way that I’ve described Uri and the Skirball. She does it for everyone. She refuses to allow her message to be made exclusive.”
“I promise to come to the Skirball every day with my heart open to the visitors I meet there. I promise to be at the Skirball every day to welcome, the way that [Uri] welcomed me. And I promise to do for others what he has done for me, which is to raise the horizon of the future I saw for myself to something I had yet to imagine.” — Jessie Kornberg
None, though, she says, have had as transformative an effect on her life as Herscher. Although she had visited the Skirball in the early 2000s with her father (who is an architect) and had attended a wedding at the center, it wasn’t until she met with Herscher that she appreciated “how differently the security and informational staff acted with the community compared with other institutions. The parking attendants, the docents in the lobby and every person I interacted with was, to use a word important to the Skirball, so welcoming. And that, of course, is an echo of the welcome Uri extended to me, and that is an important value the Skirball continues to express every single day.”
Herscher concurs. “The biggest, most wonderful surprise [over the years at the Skirball] has to do with the relationships; the depth and strength of collaboration that kindness does exist, that goodness persists. ‘May I help you?’ is the first word out of everyone’s mouth. People who serve as guards also say, ‘Do you remember where you parked? Can I help you find your car?’ Those to me are the tenets that help undergird the Skirball.”
In taking the reins on July 1, Kornberg says she is willing to talk about one aspect of her vision for the center, with the caveat that “anything I say is automatically in the context of speaking from the outside.”
The Skirball’s mission, she says, “speaks of Jewish values broadly and then articulates one in particular and that is to welcome the stranger. That resonates strongly with me. It’s often referred to in the context of stories of migration and immigration. At Bet Tzedek, I have been up close and personal with the day-to-day experiences of underserved immigrants. One of the things I have longed for is a place where immigration advocates and migration storytellers and immigrant communities could come together to think more creatively and more audaciously about what the future could hold for similar people in similar circumstances.”
In passing the baton, Herscher says he is particularly proud of how the recognition of what the Skirball stands for has evolved. “We have now become embedded in the community with a mission that is recognized by the community and the pride in this place now has no boundaries,” he says. “People don’t just give you money because you’re Uri Herscher. You have to have a mission. And the non-Jewish community has funded this place to so many millions of dollars because they understand that we’re Jewish and they like that, because they don’t like people who hide.”
“The Skirball is a huge institution with a really serious responsibility, not the least of which is Uri’s legacy. Replacing a founder; the creative genius behind the vision and the construction of the place is not a small thing, and I care about protecting his legacy and his vision.” — Jessie Kornberg
In trying to pinpoint a couple of things at the Skirball that have stood out for Herscher, among them are the summer concert programs. “They are so welcoming and embracing of everyone, and the fact that we often give a first stage in America to some of these groups.”
From the center’s changing exhibitions, he chooses two “from hundreds”: the Albert Einstein exhibition in 2004-2005 and the 2018 Notorious RBG (Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg) exhibition. He picked out the Einstein exhibition because “it introduced people to an Einstein we didn’t know. Everyone knows about his science and Nobel Prize but very few people knew his Jewish ethical compass.”
Both Einstein and Ginsburg, Herscher says, were “united in their pursuit for justice: one through science, the other through the law. [Ginsburg’s] story is seen through the Jewish values with which she was raised, and she quotes all the Jewish [biblical passages] that deal with justice, including ‘tzedek, tzedek tirdof,’ (justice, justice, shall you pursue.”)
Asked what he will miss most, Herscher flips the question on its head and says, “What I wish not to miss is the companionship of this community. I love to come here every day. I’ve never lived in such a kind and enriching community. I don’t want to miss that.”
Asked what she would like to say to Herscher, Kornberg says, “I think ‘thank you’ feels too small. The best way to repay his kindness is with the work that comes ahead. I promise to come to the Skirball every day with my heart open to the visitors I meet there. I promise to be at the Skirball every day to welcome, the way that he welcomed me. And I promise to do for others what he has done for me, which is to raise the horizon of the future I saw for myself to something I had yet to imagine before I met him but what has been made possible because of him. And better than to thank him for that is to do it for someone else, and that is what I promise to keep trying to do.”
As for what he would like to say to Kornberg, Herscher says he has to quote his dear friend, the late Rabbi Harold Schulweis, who died in 2014. He picks up a sheet of paper and says, “These are his last words he said to me before he died: ‘Uri, continue the dream. Expand the vision. Bring us together into a brighter, kinder, saner world. Remind us to sanctify our quest for meaning and purpose, to connect the shining stars above with the foundation stones below. We have come into being to build, to unite, to bless. To labor and to love the families of the Earth.’
“I would say to Jessie: ‘Continue the dream. Expand the vision.’ ”
Kelly Hartog is the Managing Editor for the Journal.
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