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L.a. Seminary Has California Flair, but Disappoints Local Synagogues

December 25, 2001
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Sitting in his sunny hilltop office here, Robert Wexler, the president of the University of Judaism, is in a cheerful mood.

A lecture series of top American and Israeli personalities is generating national attention and an unexpected financial bonanza. The university’s continuing education arm is launching new programs and drawing close to 10,000 participants. Enrollment in the university’s young rabbinical school is running higher than anticipated.

Granted, there are some nagging problems. The fiscal health of the institution is worrisome. The impact of the Sept. 11 attacks and the economic recession has Wexler “holding my breath,” he says.

Undergraduate enrollment remains low. And some critics charge that the university has forsaken its responsibility as the flagship of Conservative Judaism on the West Coast.

The evolution of the University of Judaism and of its 50-year-old president are closely intertwined.

The university was founded in 1947, three years before Wexler was. In 1968, fresh out of high school, Wexler took his first course at the university during the summer session.

After receiving a doctorate in Near Eastern studies at UCLA and being ordained as a Conservative rabbi at the Jewish Theological Seminary — followed by a lectureship at Princeton University — Wexler joined the school in 1978 as assistant to the dean of students.

In 1992, he followed the highly respected David Lieber as president.

The institution Wexler took over was co-founded by the Los Angeles Bureau of Jewish Education and the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, the rabbinical training and academic center of the Conservative movement. The university’s guiding philosophy, however, was formulated by the noted 20th-century Jewish thinker Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan.

“Kaplan viewed the role of the Jewish university as a multi-centered institution, in which the teaching of the liberal and fine arts was of equal importance to the training of rabbis,” Wexler says.

The founding lay leaders of the school came from the Hollywood film industry and shared the view that the university should give equal emphasis to culture and religion.

As to his personal outlook, Wexler says, “I am an observant Jew, but I feel just as comfortable with a ‘social action’ Jew or a ‘cultural’ Jew.”

Wexler acknowledges that the school’s administrators may not have clarified their philosophical viewpoint, leading to criticism among some Conservative synagogues.

In practice, Wexler interprets the the university’s general educational mission and eclectic approach broadly enough to accommodate a lecture series featuring President Clinton, former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, political strategist James Carville and former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak.

The series which has had a massive advertising campaign, has elicited a public response that has stunned even its originators. Even after speakers’ fees and expenses are paid, the university should end up with a handsome profit, which Wexler says will go for scholarships.

Not everybody is cheering for the lecture series, however. Wexler says he has received about 20 messages objecting to the Democratic and liberal orientation of the speakers. Others charged that Clinton and his advisers “have aided and abetted the foes of Israel.” One or two notes alluded to Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky.

The lecture series was the brainchild of Gady Levy, the 32-year old dean of the university’s department of continuing education, whom Wexler credits with reinvigorating and expanding the school’s outreach and extension program.

Close to 10,000 people annually participate in a diversified program of classes, tours, lectures, seminars, forums and special events, mainly held in the evenings and on Sundays.

Levy also launched Yesod — “foundation” in Hebrew — an intensive two-year biblical and Jewish studies program, held in partnership with 10 local Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist synagogues.

Now in the works is a videoconferencing program linking the school’s faculty with adult students in Palm Springs and San Jose.

Innovative projects also are under way in other parts of the campus. At the Whizin Center for the Jewish Future, Director Ron Wolfson is working toward formation of a Jewish Teacher Service Corps, modeled on the Teach for America program.

He hopes to alleviate the shortage of qualified teachers in Jewish day schools and synagogues by enlisting alumni of Birthright Israel and other Israel-centered programs, as well as recent college graduates in Jewish studies, for one-to-two year stints as teachers.

Seminars and workshops for teachers and parents, directed by Risa Munitz-Gruberger, stress the role of family education.

The university’s performing arts program is hosting the world premiere of the full-scale musical “Haven.” Wexler also is looking toward “edgier” projects such as staging translated Israeli plays and readings by younger Jewish writers.

“We have all this Hollywood talent here, and we want them not just as donors, but as participants,” he says.

On the construction front, the current project is the Auerbach Student Center, which will serve as a combination fitness and student union center, with an adjoining Olympic-length swimming pool, soccer field and basketball court.

The school does not field any athletic teams — but is debating forming a debating team.

Given all this activity, it may come as a surprise to learn that only 223 undergraduate and graduate students are enrolled full time.

The one branch of the academic program that is exceeding enrollment projections and is on the soundest financial footing is the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, with 64 future rabbis enrolled in the five-year program.

“When we started the Ziegler school in 1996, we thought we’d take 10 new students each year, for a total of 50 at all five levels, because there wouldn’t be enough jobs for any more,” Wexler says.

But since then, rabbinical job opportunities have greatly expanded, especially in the fields of education and community service. Plans now call for 20 new students to be admitted to the rabbinical school each year, for a total student body of 100.

Some members of Conservative synagogues — particularly those who have been part of the Conservative movement from childhood — criticize the school and Wexler on both philosophical and practical grounds.

“I used to think of the U.J. as the center of the Conservative movement on the West Coast, but now the only thing Conservative about it consists of the Ziegler rabbinical school, Camp Ramah and the introduction to Judaism classes,” charges Michael Waterman, vice president of finance at Valley Beth Shalom, one of Los Angeles’s premier Conservative synagogues.

As it stands now, “the U.J. has marooned the Conservative movement and left it without a focal point,” Waterman says. “If the Conservative movement is to survive, it can’t be a loose confederation of synagogues, with each rabbi or board of directors making their own rules. There has to be a central authority.”

His criticism is reinforced by Jules Porter, a former member of the U.J. board of directors and past president of the university’s Patrons Society and of Sinai Temple.

“I am disappointed that the U.J. has been turned into a generic cultural and community institution, whose ambition seems to be to become the Princeton of the West Coast,” Porter says.

Wexler acknowledges the criticisms, but believes the critics are nostalgic for a type of institution that never really existed.

The university has never aimed to be the flagship of Conservative Judaism or the interpreter of Conservative religious doctrine, Wexler argues.

“Our rabbinical school is Conservative,” he says. “The rest of the university is basically nondenominational.”

Doctrinal interpretations lie partially within the purview of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, but mainly with the Rabbinical Assembly, the worldwide association of Conservative rabbis, Wexler says.

While Wexler regrets any loss of financial support because of the tensions with local congregations, he notes that the school is relying less on synagogue donations and more on contributions by individuals.

“We are holding our breath now to see how the events of Sept. 11 and the downturn in the economy will affect us. We’ll know better by the end of the calendar year,” he says.

“All our programs are directed toward one goal, and that is to make a real impact on the shape and direction of American Judaism,” he says. “We are very much a California institution, which means that we will always be innovative, that we will always look forward.”

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