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Jewish Journal

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.

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