It’s T-minus five months to one of the most high-profile headlines in the history of American Jewish University’s (AJU) annual lecture series: On Feb. 22, former Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush are slated to share a stage at Universal’s Gibson Amphitheatre, with AJU President Robert Wexler probing their perspectives on world affairs.
With such prominent — and radically different — personalities set to converge before an audience in the thousands, Wexler must already be busy preparing his notes and researching profound, thoughtful questions — right?
“Not yet,” he said recently with a laugh. “I can never start to put together my questions more than a month in advance. It’s too risky; things change so rapidly that I have no idea what’s going to be happening in the world that I’d ask them about.”
It’s this dedication to fresh takes on topical political figures that has made AJU’s public lecture series such a popular draw since its inception in 2001. Organized through the university’s Whizin Center for Continuing Education, the series has featured heavyweights including former Vice President Al Gore; former British Prime Minister Tony Blair; Israeli Prime Ministers Ehud Barak and Shimon Peres; and U.S. Secretaries of State Henry Kissinger, Madeleine Albright and Colin Powell. Clinton has appeared twice before, but this is Bush’s first appearance at AJU — and the two former presidents have never before appeared together in a U.S. forum of this sort.
The series was to have begun at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium, but even before it got started, a larger venue was needed. The amphitheater’s 6,000 seats and a broad intellectual hook attracted both Jews and non-Jews alike. Wexler, who is a rabbi and scholar and continues to teach a small number of classes at AJU, said he’s still scratching his head over what has turned out to be a simple formula for success.
“We discovered over the years that Jews enjoy coming together to hear intellectual political discussions,” he said. “They might not necessarily be connected to Jewish life, but they like to do it in a Jewish environment.”
This year, for the first time, the Whizin Center is hosting a single “mega-lecture” in place of its usual series of events. Tickets for the event go on sale Nov. 5.
Getting two presidents together is a costly feat, Wexler said, and organizers had trouble answering the difficult question: “Who would you put after these guys?”
Most of the series’ lectures don’t focus on Jewish issues, but Wexler always tries to work in a Jewish angle. At the talk with Clinton and Bush, for example, he said he will discuss Middle East policy and attitudes toward Israel.
Wexler might not write up his questions until a few weeks before an interview, but what he usually does months in advance is a common activity at AJU: his homework. Books and op-eds his guests have written are fair game, and he even parses past interviews they’ve given to get a feel for their speaking rhythm and cadence.
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Dr. Robert Wexler; Below: Wexler talking with former President Bill Clinton. Photo by Peter Halmagyi
If the interview starts from a place of familiarity, he said, the audience will feel like he’s simply catching up with an old friend.
“The extent that I can get to know them vicariously — through what they’ve written or what’s been written about them — that’s my running start,” Wexler said. “When I get on the stage I want it to feel like a continuation of a conversation, not as if we’re just getting to know each other.”
That won’t be hard when it comes to Clinton because the two have shared the Universal stage twice before. “People are crazy about him,” Wexler said. “He’s a remarkable speaker, with lots of energy; he’s extremely bright and always interesting to listen to. But people aren’t only reacting to how good he is at the time — they’re also reacting to a tremendous sense of connection that the Jewish community feels for him.”
As for whether AJU has received any criticism for inviting Bush, Wexler said, “Not yet.”
But with such a traditionally left-leaning audience as the Jewish community, the series has drawn the ire of critics over past programs, which included former White House adviser Karl Rove and former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales last year. Both garnered some early skepticism, but Wexler stands by the choices.
“We’re not endorsing anybody’s views — left, right or center — when we bring people in,” he said. “This is an educational program. Anybody who has served in a significant position of leadership, even if they’re somewhat controversial, should be of interest. It’s very different when you actually hear that person speak in a less formal interview than you’d see on TV. Usually, when people come to these programs, they say afterward, ‘I learned a lot.’”
In other words, it’s exactly the kind of mind-expanding opportunity the Whizin Center tries to provide for its participants. Along with the lecture series, the center also hosts a range of programs on Jewish culture, the Hebrew language, theater and visual arts, biblical archeology and even marriage maintenance, all geared toward “lifelong learners” looking for a Jewish connection or just something new to do.
“Our mission is to promote Jewish education, but what we offer is much broader than that,” said Gady Levy, dean of the Whizin Center and vice president of AJU. “We want to create a sense of community — a way for everybody, no matter what they’re looking for, to come and participate in the Jewish community. Our goal is just to get people in the door.”
With AJU’s name recognition, that hasn’t been hard. The former University of Judaism has for decades offered a range of undergraduate and graduate programs in Jewish education, business administration and rabbinic studies. But at a university strongly identified with its rabbinic school, continuing education also commands the spotlight with the largest Jewish adult education program in the country. The center caters to a diverse population from all walks of Jewish life, Levy said.
According to a recent survey, only about half of the center’s 12,000 enrollees are affiliated with a synagogue. To Wexler, that means thousands of Jewish adults attend Whizin programs because they seek a different type of connection to Judaism.
“Jews need a variety of entry points into the community,” he said. “There are a lot of people who may not find their way into synagogues, but they do find their way into our programs.”
But even for those who belong to congregations, Levy said, the center fulfills a unique need for engagement and self-advancement that is otherwise going unmet. From politics, art and music to Jewish studies and tours of L.A.’s Jewish sites, Levy believes there is something for everyone.
“Some of what we offer is educational, some is entertaining, and all of it is social,” he said. “Many students start by going to one lecture or taking one class, and then they stay involved. Ultimately, our goal is to allow people to come into the Jewish community through what they are passionate about.”
For more information, call (310) 440-1246 or visit ajula.edu/pls.