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BBI and UJ join up to forge a home for pluralistic Judaism in landmark merger

by Julie G Fax

March 22, 2007 | 8:00 pm

The University of Judaism campus off Mullholland Drive. Photo courtesy The University of Judaism

The University of Judaism campus off Mullholland Drive. Photo courtesy The University of Judaism

The University of Judaism (UJ) and Brandeis-Bardin Institute (BBI), two Southern California institutions that for the last 60 years have educated and inspired Jews of all ages and affiliations -- and that have both at times struggled through financial and leadership troubles -- this week will announce that they have merged into one entity, to be known as the American Jewish University.

With two campuses, a roster of about 15,000 students and a remarkable range of educational, experiential, cultural and political offerings, the American Jewish University instantly becomes one of the largest and most unique Jewish educational institutions in the country.

The merger allows Brandeis to expand an educational mission that for years has been stagnating under the weight of financial insecurity and struggling lay leadership. It also allows the UJ to reintroduce itself to a local community that can't seem to shake the image of UJ as a lower-tier university affiliated with the Conservative movement. As American Jewish University, it hopes to emphasize its pluralistic identity and the non-academic educational and cultural offerings that in fact form a much larger part of the institution than the graduate and undergraduate schools.

In its new configuration, these two Jewish academies hope not only to boost their California image, but to raise a national profile with an organization that now includes graduate and undergraduate schools, a rabbinic school, two overnight camps, kosher conference and retreat facilities, an extensive listing of adult courses, a commitment to the arts, Israel programming -- and 2,800 acres in the Santa Susana mountains that include a working farm with goats, horses, chickens, cows and some crops.

"This is an important move in the direction of centralizing resources and talent in the Jewish community," said David Myers, director of the Center for Jewish Studies at UCLA. "If we assume that Jewish literacy is an important ingredient in Jewish survival and continuity -- and we educators believe it is -- this could be a significant development in reinvigorating the cultural landscape of L.A. Jewry."

The boards of both the UJ and BBI quietly approved the merger last week and are expected to have signed the closing contract this week, which according to California law will take effect 20 days after closing.

Under the new structure the two organizations will combine all assets and liabilities into the new American Jewish University, which will include the Familian Campus in Bel Air and the 2,800-acre BBI Campus in Simi Valley. They will have a combined operating budget of $25 million, $80 million in endowment, and land assets estimated to be in the high tens of millions of dollars. BBI has long been touted as the largest Jewish-owned property outside Israel.

The two boards will merge, with UJ chairperson and businessman Peter Lowy as president and Linda Gross, BBI's chairperson, on the executive committee. UJ President Robert Wexler will continue as president, and most BBI programs will fall under the Department of Continuing Education currently run by the UJ and headed by Gady Levy. Gary Brennglass, executive director of BBI, will oversee operations and facilities, possibly at both campuses. Initially, all staff members will be retained and blended.

BBI's two flagship programs -- Camp Alonim, with about 1,200 kids and staffers in the summer, and BCI, a four-week institute for college-aged adults -- will retain their own advisory boards within the board of the American Jewish University.

The UJ has operated in the black for the last several years, and UJ Chairperson Lowy, the CEO of mall giant The Westfield Group, says BBI's financial troubles are moderate, and neither a deterrent nor a surprise -- all financial, environmental, legal and other issues of both organizations have been fully disclosed. There is no major issue of deferred maintenance on the property, says Lowy, and American Jewish University is committed to investing capital in improving the BBI campus, starting with helping Camp Alonim wrap up a $6.5 million campaign to build a new dining hall, which already has raised about $4 million.

Brandeis' Best Option

BBI, a camp and conference facility that both runs its own retreat programs and rents the facility out, approached UJ about the merger last June, not out of desperation or distress, leaders say, but out of a desire to liberate itself from constant struggle and to grow to the full potential its vision and assets imply.

"We could have continued doing what we were doing on our own, but we couldn't do it big," said Brandeis chairperson Linda Gross (see story page 16). "It would take a long time to build the infrastructure and the financial support to grow, and this offers us an opportunity to be so much more to this community."

Some wonder whether the larger institution will simply swallow BBI, spelling the end of a patented approach to experiential Jewish education.

"Clearly this is a great coup for UJ," said Gary Tobin, president of the San Francisco-based Institute for Jewish and Community Research. "In any corporate structure when you do something like this, one identity emerges more strongly than the other, and clearly the UJ is the stronger of those identities ... I know what Brandeis would like to hear, but this sounds more like an acquisition than a merger to me."

Gross, a Harvard MBA who worked at McKinsey and Company consulting, acknowledges that this is not a merger of equals, but she insists it is not an acquisition. She said she is confident that BBI's vision and programs will reach greater numbers, and that more people will make their way to the BBI campus.

But she also acknowledges that this might be difficult for BBI's multigenerational following of passionate and loyal supporters.

"There is a question of giving up our independence and giving up our identity, and there is an emotional loss that this is not going to be the Brandeis-Bardin Institute anymore. But it will always be the Brandeis-Bardin campus; it will always be that same place, that method, those programs. This is something people are going to have to get comfortable with," she said. "I hope that people see this was a courageous thing."

A merger at this level is unusual in the Jewish organizational world, where institutional egos and a tendency to over-process make cooperation rare. But this idea arrived at a time when both institutions were ready for change. Even then, it may not have happened without the confluence of business minds at the top lay and professional spots at both organizations: Gross and Lowy are businesspeople, UJ's Wexler has an MBA (as well as a doctorate and is ordained as a rabbi), and Brandeis director Brennglass, who is also president of the Jewish Federation's Valley Alliance, headed a packaging company for years before he retired into Jewish organizational life.

Lowy is credited with making sure not only that the transactional details were solid, but that momentum stayed strong, so that the deal was completed in about seven months.

"Melding the Jewish community world with business ideas needs to be done, otherwise you will never get anything done in the community and you can't move forward in the 21st century," Lowy said.

A Long Decline

While the merger may not have arisen out of an immediate crisis, it stems from BBI operating at a deficit and struggling through leadership crises for many years.

"We have been reaching toward what we had hoped for for many years, but we have never really been able to formulate a consistent vision with consistent leadership and the resources necessary to move forward," said Richard Gunther, a past president who has been involved in Brandeis for 50 years. "To me, this is a new beginning, and I hope that this new institution will be able to carry that vision forward."

He credits Gross' courage and her ability to blend business acumen with a passion for Jewish living.

Still, the path to the merger has been difficult.

"It's something I don't think anyone envisioned, because we've always been very independent," said Joseph Wapner, who, with his wife Mickey, has been involved with BBI for about 50 years. "But I think it is going to turn out to be better for both institutions."

BBI's challenges began soon after the 1976 death of Shlomo Bardin, who founded the institute with Justice Louis Brandeis in 1941 in New Hampshire and moved it to Simi Valley in 1947.

Bardin wanted to build a living laboratory for Judaism, where the experience of nature, culture and links to a rich heritage and broad family could inspire not only passion, but an ability to see one's role in the world through a Jewish lens.

Bardin was an effective leader and visionary, but he also did little to separate his personality from the institution and never groomed a successor. While some professional leaders have stepped up with admirable ability -- Dennis Prager, Deborah Lipstadt, Alvin Mars and Rabbi Lee Bycel all had success in various arenas as directors -- no one has been able to match Sholmo Bardin's sustained leadership.

The institute continued to hold fast to Bardin's mission and strategy, even as the surrounding greater Los Angeles Jewish community changed, with organizations such as the Skirball Cultural Center, UJ and many others taking up and then usurping BBIs' forte of offering non-synagogue programs focused on multiple entryways to Judaism.

Yet, even with those struggles, the camp programs continued to grow and continued to change people's lives. Brandeis still had its land and offered unique outdoor experiences that inevitably touched and pulled in anyone who walked down the pepper-tree lined roads, which are surrounded by golden hills and modestly dotted with discrete yet warm and welcoming structures. Notable is the House of the Book hilltop sanctuary, the venue for legendary adult education, which is often leased for b'nai mitzvah, weddings and other occasions.

As the years went by, BBI fell into increasing trouble. The acreage continuously required serious maintenance, especially so after it was hit hard by the Northridge quake in 1994 and then a costly brush fire in September 2005 that charred 1,500 acres and damaged the House of the Book.

The board was bloated -- people who loved BBI never wanted to leave -- and the trustees tended to micromanage, according to insiders. Conflicts over prioritizing programs -- Alonim, BCI, adult education, the arts -- made leadership difficult.

Camp Alonim is the only program with positive cash flow, though it has not been enough to sustain the rest of the operations. According to insiders, BBI has sold off swaths of land -- as much as 400 acres -- to make up for an ever-present budget deficit.

In the last eight years, three top professionals have left -- Mars, Bycel and Rabbi Isaac Jeret.

The last one was a particularly devastating blow, when Jeret -- whom the board hoped could pull the institution up and lead it with vision -- left for a pulpit in 2005 after just ten months.

Brennglass, who had been a lay leader for decades at Brandeis, came out of retirement from a successful business career to become Brandeis' professional director of operations under Jeret, then took on the position of executive director when Jeret left. As a result, for the first time Brandeis did not have an educator at the helm.

"Gary and I pushed hard to say the answer is not just 'lets find a new leader,'" said Gross, who became chairperson at the beginning of Jeret's term. "The answer is let's take a look at who we are and what we can do and get ourselves in the strongest position we can."

They did that first through restructuring the board, which had an unwieldy 72 directors. Gross divided the group into a non-voting board of trustees and a voting board of 25 people.

Then they hired an outside firm to conduct a strategic assessment.

One of the recommendations that came out of the assessment in January 2006, was to merge with another organization, but the board opted for a different option -- growing the program and making it better. Alonim improved its facilities and its marketing. BCI added a two-week track for 24-to- 32 year olds, in addition to its traditional four-week session for 18-to-26 year olds. Brennglass worked on improving operations.

But Gross says after seven months it became clear this wouldn't be enough. "We felt like we weren't going to catapult ourselves into something really different and bigger, with way more impact," Gross said.

A Merger Proposed

That was when Wapner brought up the idea of merging with UJ. Wapner -- of "People's Court" fame -- had become acquainted with Wexler after he had attended two intimate lunches of a sort that Wexler holds regularly with UJ supporters.

"I was impressed tremendously with Bob Wexler and his vision about pluralism," Wapner said. "Brandeis has always been a pluralistic institution, and after one of those lunches I said to myself, 'I think Brandeis ought to get together with UJ.'"

Over the past six years, UJ has increased its continuing education department to reach about 10,000 people annually. UJ's focus on cultural as well as academic Jewish experiences seemed to overlap with Brandeis' mission.

And UJ is in a strong position today. It eliminated an operating deficit of $1 million in the 1990s and, under Wexler's leadership, increased the endowment from $5 million to $80 million. The school has added a performing arts program, think tanks and built a new student center, conference facilities and library.

In June 2006, Wapner floated the merger concept by a receptive Wexler, then brought it to Gross.

After some initial conversations among a small group, the idea was brought to both boards in August, and Brandeis and UJ created merger committees to explore the options.

Board members had initial concerns about UJ's commitment to pluralism and whether this would mean that BBI's identity would be lost. Through many hours of open conversation with UJ and BBI leadership, and through private meetings with Wexler, most board members came away excited about the prospect of being able to grow under able leadership.

But some board members remained wary. They say once the merger was on the table, it became a question of how, not whether, the merger would take place.

Adam Weiss, a 28-year-old Alonim and BCI alumnus, who was a member of the merger committee, said he tried to create a two-pronged approach by exploring with other board members BBI'a history, vision and purpose, and presenting other options.

"That conversation was going on, but at a certain point, the merger conversation got louder and louder, and then it got faster and faster, and it began, deliberately or not, to crowd out everything else," said Weiss, general counsel for Cornerstone OnDemand.

Others simply didn't like the outcome, feeling that BBI was selling itself short and giving away its most valuable asset -- the land.

"They're calling this a merger, but I would stop calling it that. This is an acquisition," said Bernard Lax, whose family donated the money for BBI's administrative building in the 1990s. His parents, siblings and children have all been involved in BBI for decades, but Lax says he thinks this might be end of his connection.

"It's very difficult to take 50 years of history and put it in the hands of someone else and explain to them why it is important," Lax said. "The fantastic thing about Brandeis is that no matter what changes in the world, certain things don't change, and that is a plus. ... Some might just call that nostalgia, but I call it a connection to the past."

But most other board members are confident that the UJ leadership gets what Brandeis is about and will continue -- and expand -- its traditions. They say BBI -- the place, the idea, the vision -- is too strong and too important to be absorbed.

"If this were the end of an era, I don't think I would have voted for it," said BBI board member Elaine Gill.

Gill met her husband at BBI, and two of their four sons met their wives there, as well.

"I feel it is an expansion, and that we will complement and respect each other," she said.

It seems that most board members agree with Gill. While BBI's final board tally is confidential, the bylaws require an 80 percent majority, meaning that at most, five of the 25 members could have dissented.

A Natural Match

Something BBI board members realized early in the negotiations is that the missions of the two organizations are surprisingly close and complementary. BBI brings an experiential and cultural approach to infusing a love for Judaism -- "to touch and to teach," is the motto. UJ, in addition to being a university, seeks to foster intellectual growth and debate and enhance Jewish life through education and the arts.

Both organizations are aggressively pluralistic and not affiliated with any denomination -- a fact that may come as a surprise to much of the Jewish community. While UJ includes the Conservative Ziegler School for Rabbinic Studies, the rest of the organization is transdenominational. The merger and renaming offers UJ the chance to reintroduce itself to the community.

"One of the attractions of the merger, frankly, is precisely the pluralistic nature of Brandeis-Bardin. We've been trying very hard to explain to the community, with mixed success, that this is who we've been now for the past 16 years," said UJ president Wexler.

The idea for UJ was conceived by Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan, the founder of the Reconstructionist movement. Kaplan wanted to bring into fruition his concept of Judaism as a civilization -- where religious dogma and observance are secondary to culture, nationalism, history and a connection to Jewish heritage. His vision was carried out when the Conservative Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) in New York, and the Bureau of Jewish Education in Los Angeles founded the University of Judaism in 1947.

While the faculty mostly came from Conservative backgrounds, the university has always had a pluralistic approach, Wexler says, and there was nothing officially Conservative about the institution until 1971, when it opened a pre-ordination track connected to JTS. When Wexler became president in 1992, he pushed hard to make the university's pluralistic identity come to the fore. A Blended Program

Not only the history, but the programs and logistics of the two institutions seem complementary.

There is already crossover among the two institutions' donors and lay leaders. While the UJ is busy all year and quiet in the summer, summer is busy season for BBI. The American Jewish University will now have facilities and faculty available for community conferences and retreats, as well as lifecycle events, year round.

UJ, an urban campus on 28 acres, has little space to grow, while BBI has ample open space and natural beauty on its Santa Susana Mountains campus.

And that campus suddenly finds itself closer to a large Jewish population, with communities flourishing in places like Thousand Oaks and Agoura.

Now, people in the Conejo Valley will have access to UJ programming 20 minutes away.

For the UJ, the boon is being able to market to a whole new population, and to optimize program offerings -- the same lecturer, same advertising, two locations. It will not only up revenues, but bring the product to more people.

For BBI, it means more Jews will come down Peppertree Lane.

BBI's college program, BCI, will offer college credit. UJ's "Making Marriage Work" seminar can tempt couples with a new-marrieds' weekend at Brandeis. Both organizations are confident that the two camps that now fall under American Jewish University -- Camp Alonim and Camp Ramah -- have different enough characters and target populations that they will not be competitive.

While UJ owns Ramah's 225 acres in Ojai, Ramah has its own board and fiscal independence. Camp Alonim, which has always operated with BBI as a parent organization, will continue to have an advisory board within the American Jewish University board. And though some BBI board members felt this move imperiled Alonim's integrity, camp director Jordanna Flores believes the structure will retain the camp's programmatic independence and open more resources.

Gross notes that only about 150 of the 2,800 acres (about 4.5 square miles) are currently utilized, so possibilities abound -- a home for the aging, fulfilling Bardin's vision of a prep school, perhaps an Orthodox summer camp and a center for the arts.

UJ chairperson Lowy envisions someday -- maybe in 25 years -- moving the undergraduate campus out to Simi Valley and building an institution that will attract thousands of students, rather than the 150 undergraduates UJ has today.

"From my point of view that is the real attraction -- that we can create the foundation for the next group of people to come along and do something we couldn't physically do," Lowy said.

That, perhaps is the greatest benefit of this union, leaders says: The unfettered imagining now possible, with UJ's new access to BBI's space and a heritage of programs, and Brandeis' replenished pool of funding and leadership.

"Every year we worry, 'am I going to make the budget, am I going to be able to fix up the facilities.' It's hard to operate with that level of tightening the belt all the time," Gross said. "We've been in that mode for a long time, and to be out of that and to be able to build and dream again, is liberating."

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