UCLA donors and alumni — concerned and upset, but mostly supportive

Loren Witkin remembers the days when his two sons, Matthew and Brandon, were decked out in UCLA gear as newborns.
March 25, 2015

Loren Witkin remembers the days when his two sons, Matthew and Brandon, were decked out in UCLA gear as newborns. As toddlers, they knew UCLA’s fight song — the Eight Clap — and as they grew older they attended Bruins’ sporting events with their parents, both UCLA grads from an era when the school was known affectionately in many Jewish circles as “UCLeh.”

Witkin said of his oldest son, Matthew, 18, who’s now hearing back from colleges he applied to — none of them UCLA — that he had always assumed his son would apply to his parents’ alma mater, even if it were just “as a favor” to his parents.

“We bleed Bruin blue and gold,” Witkin said during a March 19 phone interview from his office in Glendale. “If you would ask our friends to just identify a few words that would characterize the Witkins, they would say: ‘UCLA.’ ”

But that, Witkin said, is changing because of what many Jews worry is a campus climate at UCLA that’s becoming increasingly hostile for Jewish students, particularly ones who are active in the campus’ embattled pro-Israel movement. A series of incidents covered in the media, including national news outlets, has highlighted growing anti-Israel and even potentially anti-Semitic tensions on campus. But while most Jewish UCLA alumni and donors in Los Angeles, including Witkin, are alarmed by these incidents at UCLA and at other public California universities, most, unlike Witkin, are maintaining their financial support of their alma mater.

The two concerns Jews point to are the growing success of the campus’ Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement — which is led by a coalition of Muslim, left-leaning and minority groups — along with an incident on Feb. 10 in which a Jewish student judicial candidate, Rachel Beyda, was grilled during a nomination hearing by members of the student government about whether being a Jew would make it impossible for her to be an “unbiased” judge. A majority of student government officials initially voted to deny Beyda’s appointment, then quickly changed their vote to unanimously approve her after the interjection of a school administrator who was present at the meeting.

Witkin said he and his wife, Michelle, who have long been Chancellor’s Associates — a class of donors who give between $2,500 and $9,999 annually — have now taken the university out of their will and are lowering their annual gift, directing what remains to the UCLA Institute of Environment and Sustainability, a program Witkin’s company began supporting as a corporate partner in 2011.

Matthew, currently a student at Learning Post High School in Valencia, said UCLA had always been a top choice until the past year, when he noticed, thanks mostly to news reports, a rise in the campus’ anti-Israel movement and “anti-Semitism spawning from the student government.”

“I think I’m more unique among my friends in [not applying to UCLA], but I also watch the news more than my friends,” Matthew said. “I think that [I’m part of] a minority but I think that we’re a sizeable minority.”

For now, though, the Witkins and the possibly “sizeable minority” of local Jews who are upset enough with UCLA — and the administration’s perceived inaction — to suggest that Jewish donors and high school applicants look elsewhere is just that, a minority.

Alan Leve, an 87-year-old Los Angeles native, UCLA alumnus, and founder and president of Ohmega Technologies, donated $5 million to UCLA’s Center for Jewish Studies, money that will fund three endowments and, Leve said in a March 23 interview, will increase the center’s collaboration with Israeli academic institutions and scholars.

“My donation has given me a seat at the table and a voice in the discussion,” Leve said, characterizing the recent events at UCLA as disconcerting and the BDS movement as a “pretext for anti-Semitism,” whose aim is Israel’s destruction. Despite the recent incidents, Leve is undeterred in his support for the school:  “I don’t think donors should walk away. I think they should step up and use their own voice if they have great concerns on these issues.”

On March 10, in the wake of the Beyda incident and the negative media reports that followed, UCLA’s student government unanimously approved a resolution condemning anti-Semitism. That same night, Leve had dinner with UCLA Chancellor Gene Block, who is Jewish, at the chancellor’s home and discussed with him his concerns about the climate for pro-Israel Jewish students on campus.

Block said in a March 16 interview with the Journal that BDS “will not be sustained” at UCLA.

“It’s my hope that UCLA appears next year on a list of top 10 universities in the country who are doing their best to counteract anti-Semitism on campus,” Leve said, adding that he’s been pleased with Block’s statements in recent months and with Block’s meeting on March 11 with local Jewish leaders at the Museum of Tolerance.

Although most of UCLA’s largest donors either declined or did not respond to requests for comment for this article (among those contacted were corporate-housing mogul Howard Ruby and representatives for business entrepreneurs Stewart and Lynda Resnick, along with Jonathan Mitchell, a major donor to Wilshire Boulevard Temple), there have been no indications at this point of an exodus of major Jewish donors from UCLA, including resolutely pro-Israel ones.

Howard Welinsky, who graduated UCLA in 1972, is an executive at Warner Bros. Pictures and an active volunteer lobbyist for the university in Sacramento politics, reaching out to politicians on legislation related to academic funding and University of California policies that impact UCLA. An article from the spring 2001 issue of UCLA magazine describes Welinsky as an “alumnus hero with titanium-hard loyalty,” whose two biggest political passions are Israel and higher education. His and his wife’s (also an alumnus) connection to UCLA is so deep that the couple’s wedding nearly 12 years ago was held on campus. And in November, Welinsky made a $100,000 matching gift to the school after 2,200 people donated to a fundraising campaign before a UCLA-USC football game.

“Occasionally I interview college students for internships here [at Warner Bros.],” Welinsky said in a telephone interview from his Burbank office. “And if they’re Jewish, I typically ask the question, whatever campus they came from, what the climate on campus is like.”

Welinsky believes the environment at UCLA for pro-Israel students is “more challenging” than it was when he was a student more than 40 years ago, but that it’s simply a reality Jewish and pro-Israel students face on most American campuses.

“Jewish students need to get a spine to deal with BDS,” Welinsky said. “I would hope Jewish students become informed on the issues and learn the skills of organizing and coalition politics.”

Welinsky said the news media — particularly MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough, who was so outraged at the line of questioning in the Beyda hearing, that he said on air, “Why don’t they just tell her [Beyda] that they have to wear a patch when she walks around campus, a Star of David?” — has blown recent events at UCLA out of proportion and that Jewish applicants should speak with Jewish UCLA students before making any judgment about the campus climate. “You can’t rely, with all due respect, on what you read in the media to tell you what’s going on,” Welinsky said.

Dina Glouberman, a mother of four who lives in Beverlywood (and also met her husband at UCLA), pointed out that the hot anti-Israel topic on campus used to be the “Zionism Is Racism” movement, a volatile, if perhaps not as successful movement as BDS. She repeated something that Welinsky and others also mentioned — the role that tension and debate can play in helping pro-Israel students defend Israel.

“They’re getting tools in their toolbox that a campus that has less vocal students wouldn’t have,” Glouberman said, adding that she’d be happy if her two youngest children eventually attend UCLA.

Hillel at UCLA’s outgoing and longtime executive director, Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller, said the campus climate for pro-Israel students has been challenging for at least 30 years, following Israel’s displays of strength in the 1967 Six-Day War and particularly the 1982 Lebanon War, which transformed the image of Jews “in the eyes of the left” from “vulnerable underdogs to powerful victors,” making them fair game for criticism.

Although Seidler-Feller said he is concerned about the impact of the campus BDS movement, he, like Leve and Welinsky, feels that now would be the worst time for Jews to withdraw from the university. “Jews have influence,” Seidler-Feller said, advising Jewish donors and leaders to “use our influence constructively.” In fact, on March 16, just before the Journal’s interview with Block at UCLA, Seidler-Feller met with the chancellor to discuss some of these concerns. He said he was pleased with Block’s recent interview with the Journal and with his labeling the Beyda incident an act of anti-Semitism, but said that the administration should play a more active role and not just allow for the situation to unfold and for the different groups on campus “to go at it.”

“The administration can take action; it’s been passive until now in addressing the issues of tensions between different student groups,” Seidler-Feller said.

Asked what message he’d like to send to Jewish high school students concerned about the situation at UCLA, he said that despite the confrontations and antagonisms that have made news, he believes Jews on campus are living through a “golden age,” both in the number of Jewish resources available on campus, and the influence of Jews on and within the college administration.

Recently, Hillel at UCLA’s student leadership reached out with a letter to all accepted Jewish high school applicants explaining why UCLA is still a Jewish-friendly campus. The letter was signed by six Jewish students, including Beyda’s roommate, Rachel Frenklak, who attended the Feb. 10 hearing where Beyda was questioned, and was the first to report it publicly in an op-ed in UCLA’s student newspaper.

Glouberman’s two oldest children, Dani and Yael, both undergraduate Bruins, said that witnessing anti-Israel activity on campus came as a surprise after their elementary and high school education in the “Jewish bubble” of private religious school, as Yael put it, but that it has not changed their perception of UCLA from when they were prospective students in high school — as a particularly nurturing college environment for active Jewish students.

“Come see the campus for yourself; come see how Jewish life really thrives,” Yael said in hopes of sending a message to concerned Jewish high school students. “It’s unquestionably a great place for Jewish life despite what is depicted in the media.”

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