January 21, 2019

HUC Dean Redux

More than a quarter century ago, Dr. Lewis Barth became one of the youngest college deans in the United States, assuming the post at Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles. Eight years later, he stepped down. Now, at 59, Barth is back, having returned to his old chair last month.

To say that HUC has changed in the past 26 years would be an understatement. Barth, easy-going and soft-spoken, is certainly aware of the changes and challenges that have been handed to him. Among other things, he says, he needs to raise the visibility of his college, improve the morale of his faculty, and secure a position of prominence for HUC within this city of competing Jewish institutions.

During the administration of Barth’s predecessor, Rabbi Lee Bycel, the Skirball Cultural Center was transformed from a small but respected museum on the HUC campus to a highly visible independent institution in the Sepulveda Pass. While some have worried that the Skirball’s presence within the community has eclipsed HUC’s, the college has sincemade strides of its own, solidifying its relationship with USC. The two institutions now share a number of programs, including USC’s newly established Department of Jewish studies.

Barth aims to further increase HUC’s visibility by playing to its strengths. His early strategy calls for bringing the full rabbinic preparation curriculum to his campus, including the prestigious ordination ceremonies. Supporters who have been pushing this policy change for years contend that in this one stroke, Barth could jump-start fund raising, increase the college’s enrollment and raise its profile.

In taking on such a challenge, Barth joins Reform Judaism’s relatively youthful new national leadership team of Rabbi Sheldon Zimmerman, president of the three Reform campuses (Cincinnati, Houston and Los Angeles), and Rabbi Eric Yoffie, director of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations.

“This is a historic moment for me,” says Barth, a native Angeleno who is also a nationally recognized scholar for his writings about Midrashic literature.

Barth has spent much of his career at HUC: In addition to his first term as dean (1971-1979), he has taught and done scholarly research. As a teacher, he has earned high marks from both students and colleagues. Rabbi Lawrence Goldmark, the new president of the Southern California Board of Rabbis, says that Barth is “the consummate teacher.”

“Lew is a tremendous motivator, meticulously prepared, and he’s popular with his students,” says Goldmark, a member of the youth group that Barth led at Temple Israel almost 40 years ago. “These are the kinds of skills I believe Lew will transfer successfully to the dean’s office, and lead the college to new heights.”