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With Ordination of Reform Rabbis, West Coast Jewry Hits Milestone

May 9, 2002
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Observers are calling the first ordination of Reform rabbis here a coming of age for West Coast Jewry.

With this week’s ordination of the eight rabbis by the Los Angeles campus of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, coupled with the rise of other major local Jewish institutions in the last few decades, Los Angeles has become a “Mother City in Israel,” said Rabbi David Ellenson, drawing on a term in rabbinical literature.

Ellenson spoke not only as a 22-year faculty member on the Los Angeles campus, but also as the recently named HUC president who oversees its four campuses in Cincinnati, New York, Jerusalem and Los Angeles.

“Each of our four campuses reflects some of its regional flair and attitude,” Ellenson said. “I think in Los Angeles we reflect an atmosphere of informality and warmth, the area’s polyglot culture, and a place where the boundaries between denominations are more fluid and permeable than in other parts of the country.”

Ellenson himself represents some of this interdenominational outlook, having focused largely on the theology and leadership of other Jewish denominations, as they have evolved in recent centuries.

Rabbi Richard Levy, a native of New York state and now director of the School of Rabbinical Studies at HUC-L.A., first became aware of the California difference in the early 1960s while a third-year student at the HUC mother campus in Cincinnati.

“For the first time, we had an infusion of six students from the West Coast, and it really changed the spirit of the class,” he said. “They brought with them a new energy and exuberance.”

Of the eight newly ordained rabbis, five are women, of whom two are new mothers. To accommodate the latter, Levy’s office has been turned into a part-time child care center, while their mothers attend classes.

He predicted that the enrollment of rabbinical students, now 33, will rise to 100 in a few years, who on graduation will enrich the region’s congregations, communal services and educational institutions.

Rabbi Lewis Barth, dean of the Los Angeles campus, cited as unique in American higher education the relationship between his campus and the neighboring University of Southern California in which HUC provides all the undergraduate courses in Jewish studies and Hebrew for some 650 students — the majority non- Jewish — from USC.

As parts of the Jewish population shifted from the Northeast and Midwest to the Sunbelt regions of the West and South Florida, “multiple centers of Jewish creativity and organizational growth have emerged,” he said.

As the centers’ demands for greater self-rule and autonomy have grown, so has the friction with New York, especially on the part of Los Angeles-area Jews.

For example, in 1995, when Los Angeles’ University of Judaism announced plans to begin ordination of Conservative rabbis, the move triggered an acrimonious confrontation with the Conservative leadership at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. The resulting wounds have healed only gradually.

In recent years, the Los Angeles chapter of the American Jewish Congress disaffiliated from the group’s national organization, while a bitter transcontinental fight gripped the Anti-Defamation League when the national director in New York fired the veteran regional director in Los Angeles.

It is a matter of pride to the HUC that when Los Angeles proposed the ordination of rabbis on its own campus, the international board of governors concurred unanimously.

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