LOS ANGELES (JTA) – The new president of the University of California’s 10 campuses and 220,000 students keeps a kosher home, lectures on Maimonides for intellectual stimulation and is an unabashed Israel supporter.
“I am what I am,” Mark Yudof says. “What I’ve found works best for me is transparency, being direct and being honest.”
As he takes the helm of one of the world’s leading public research universities, Yudof, a former chancellor of the University of Texas and president of the University of Minnesota, has his work cut out for him.
Over the past five years, Jewish students and some observers have charged repeatedly that the administration at the UC Irvine campus, now headed by Chancellor Michael Drake, has failed to protect Jewish students against hate speech and intimidation by outside speakers and Muslim student groups.
Yudoff, a veteran law professor and expert on constitutional law and freedom of expression, says the issue presents him with something of a dilemma.
“It is an excruciating conflict when people demean everything that Judaism stands for. Some of these speakers and what they say drive me to distraction and I hate it,” Yudof says. “On the other hand, I teach constitutional law and I have a deep commitment to the First Amendment, which has served us well over time. How do you reconcile that as a Jewish man? It is horrendously difficult.”
Yudof defended Drake, who has been criticized by some Jews for not taking a sufficiently firm stand against hate speech.
“I’ve had several conversations with the chancellor, and he has a great heart and enormous sympathy for the Jewish people. He is a mensch,” Yudof said. “Because I take anti-Semitism so personally, I think I can give him some good advice.”
Yudof is in Israel this week with Drake as the co-leader of the American Jewish Committee’s Project Interchange trip for American university presidents and chancellors. Yudof, who had invited Drake on the trip before he became the University of California president, says he thinks the trip will be beneficial for both he and Drake.
Yudof says he will discuss the problems at Irvine when he addresses the Hadassah national convention in Los Angeles on July 14.
Born in Philadelphia to descendents of Ukrainian Jewish immigrants, Yudof, 63, says his grandfather on one side was Orthodox and on the other side a “well-known atheist.” He says he was raised in a “tangentially Jewish” home and had a bar mitzvah. Today he belongs to Conservative synagogues.
Yudof, who is leading a university with an $18 billion budget, is the son of an electrician and says he never quite lost his taste for the blue-collar lifestyle – especially frequent meals at pancake diners.
“I’m always looking for the perfect pancake,” he says.
Yudof joined the flagship campus of the University of Texas at Austin in 1971 as an assistant professor of law, rising over the course of 26 years to full professor and dean.
After his five-year stint as president at the University of Minnesota, Yudof returned to Texas in 2002 as chancellor of the multicampus system.
He credits his wife, Judy, with intensifying his Jewish observance and connection, inside and outside the house. She is the immediate past international president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, the first woman to hold the post in the organization’s 93-year history. Judy Yudof currently serves on the council of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington and on the international board of Hillel.
“Judy went to Israel quite often, and I went along as the bozo on her arm,” Yudof recalls.
“I am a very strong advocate of Israel,” he says. “I just am. I’m there for Israel. I may at times disagree with Israeli policy, but when they suffer, I suffer and my wife suffers.”
The couple’s religious observance evolved over time.
“About 20 years ago, Judy said she didn’t feel right about not keeping kosher at home, so we made the change,” Yudof says. “I’ve had no problem with it except for all those dishes when we move.”
Outside the home, Yudof eats non-kosher food, except for pork, he says. The couple has two adult children.
In Minnesota, the Yudofs belonged to two Conservative synagogues in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area. Now living in the Bay Area, they expect to join Conservative congregations, probably one in Oakland, where his office is located, and the other in San Francisco, Yudof told JTA.
“I hope we can hold it down to two synagogues,” he quipped.
In Texas, Yudof was heavily involved with Austin’s Jewish community.
“I’ve never known Mark Yudof to refuse an invitation to a Jewish community event,” said University of Texas Hillel director Rabbi David Komerofsky.
Yudof may have a difficult time being equally accommodating to California’s Jewish community of 1 million.
“I will do the best I can,” he said. “I feel a strong moral obligation to do so.”
Yudof says he also hopes the Jewish community will continue its traditional support of public education and the University of California.