December 11, 2019

125 and Still Growing

It’s been a landmark year for the four-campus seminary serving Reform Judaism, which has been celebrating its 125th anniversary since last September.

And it’s a time of growth and new visibility for the 47-year-old Los Angeles campus of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR), which is expanding its faculty and course offerings and will ordain rabbis for the first time a year from now.

This Sunday, HUC-JIR’s Los Angeles school will celebrate the seminary’s 125 years with a day of study, song, and partying. Along with the school’s resident faculty, the featured teacher will be Rabbi Lawrence Kushner, author of many books on Jewish symbolism and spirituality and rabbi-in-residence at HUC-JIR’s New York campus.

The public is invited to the celebration, which includes lunch, workshops, a musical presentation by local Reform cantors and cantorial soloists, and birthday cake.

"This is an exciting time for the College-Institute and the community," said Dr. Lewis M. Barth, dean of HUC-JIR’s Los Angeles school.

Hebrew Union College, the oldest rabbinical seminary in the United States, has come a long way since Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise gathered 17 teenaged boys in the basement of a Cincinnati synagogue in 1875 and began to train them for the rabbinate. The school’s first library, locked away every night in a box to protect it from mice, contained 103 books. Today, the libraries at the four HUC-JIR campuses hold a total of more than 700,000 volumes.

In 1950, HUC, by then long established on a stately Cincinnati campus, merged with the liberal Jewish Institute of Religion in New York. The merger gave Reform Judaism a New York center for training rabbis and cantors.

The Los Angeles school was founded in 1954 in response to the growing presence of Jewish communities and Reform synagogues along the West Coast. In 1963, HUC-JIR established a campus in Jerusalem, mainly as a center for biblical and archeological research, but it is now the school at which all Reform rabbinical, cantorial, and education students spend their first years of study, and it began ordaining rabbis in the 1980s.

Since its inception, HUC-JIR has ordained more than 2,500 Reform rabbis, and it has invested close to 400 cantors since its School of Sacred Music opened in 1948.

Similarly, the Los Angeles school has come a long way since its early years on Appian Way in the Hollywood Hills, when classes met in a big house on a wooded lot with a drained pool in the back and a refrigerator for a library.

Based a block from the University of Southern California since 1970, HUC-JIR/LA houses the oldest school of Jewish communal service in the United States and one of the nation’s premier training centers for Jewish educators. After many years of offering rabbinical training only through the third year, the Los Angeles campus this year has fourth-year students, who are on track to be ordained in Los Angeles in May 2002.

"We’ve been very excited this year to finally have a fourth-year class," said Rabbi Richard Levy, dean of the rabbinical school, "and to begin with them the journey of increased exploration of our texts, our history, and our tradition that comes with the final two years of rabbinical study."

Dr. William Cutter, professor of education and Hebrew at the campus since 1965, said that there were "legitimate budgetary concerns" that kept HUC-JIR from expanding the Los Angeles rabbinical program through ordination but that the administrators "worked slowly and lengthily … toward fuller standing."

Over the years, Cutter said, "the California school made itself look a little less like a West Coast outpost and more like a full partner."

To Prof. Sara Lee, director of the Rhea Hirsch School of Education, however, the prospect of ordination next year simply adds to the luster of a campus that already contains two flagship schools for Jewish professionals.

"While it’s true that this campus was not an ordaining campus, [the education and communal service] schools give to the Los Angeles campus a national presence in the larger Jewish community," Lee said. "Of course, what the decision on ordination means is that same national importance is accorded to the rabbinical program as well."

To date, more than 450 men and women have graduated from the Irwin Daniels School of Communal Service, 160 of whom have positions in the Southern California Jewish community, and the Hirsch school has granted degrees to 260 Jewish educators.

Plans are also under discussion for building a full cantorial program at the Los Angeles school. "The national administration of HUC-JIR, as well as the leadership of the UAHC, is very interested in the development of the sacred music program here at the Los Angeles campus," Barth told The Journal.

Dr. Norman Cohen, provost and acting president of all four HUC-JIR campuses, told The Journal that while there is no target date for establishing a full cantorial program in Los Angeles, the College-Institute is "committed to expanding offerings," possibly as early as this fall.

HUC-JIR/LA also houses the Edgar F. Magnin School of Graduate Studies, which offers advanced degrees in Judaic studies, and the Jerome H. Louchheim School of Judaic Studies, which provides courses in Jewish studies to USC undergraduates.

Several Los Angeles administrators mentioned HUC-JIR/LA’s relationship with USC, which includes a joint master’s in social work program with the Daniels School, as a major factor in the school’s growth.

They also credit Barth, who began his second stint as dean of the Los Angeles campus in 1997. "He brought a new energy to the campus," Lee said, adding that he is largely responsible for attracting new young faculty and new lay supporters to the school and lauding "the excitement of his leadership and his vision for the school."

"We’re in very good spirits," Cutter said.

HUC-JIR/LA’s 125th birthday celebration will be held Sun., April 22, 10:15 a.m.-3 p.m., 3077 University Ave. (corner of Hoover and 32nd streets). Registration opens at 9:30 a.m. The $12 fee includes lunch and materials. For more information, call (213) 749-3424, ext. 4205.