March 22, 2007
BBI and UJ join up to forge a home for pluralistic Judaism in landmark merger
(Page 2 - Previous Page)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.