March 22, 2007
UJ President Robert Wexler has roots in three denominations
(Page 2 - Previous Page)"I think labels like Orthodox, Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist only describe one aspect of someone's Jewish neshama [soul], and I don't think anyone should be pigeonholed that way," he said.
Wexler lives in the Pico-Robertson area, goes to an Orthodox shul and sent his children, a now 28-year-old son and 25-, 22- and 18-year-old daughters, to Orthodox schools.
His family has been in the United States since the late 1800s, and as he was growing up in Los Angeles, his mother, who had no Jewish education herself, enrolled Bob and his sister in Hebrew school at Wilshire Boulevard Temple.
Wexler stayed with that program until 12th grade, and Wilshire's Rabbi Alfred Wolf encouraged Wexler to enter the rabbinate.
He also spent summers from age 5 to 18 at an Orthodox day camp at Gardner Park (now Pan-Pacific Park), because his mother wanted him to spend the summer with family friend Elie Gindi (of the Gindi family that is a major UJ supporter). His last summer there he met his wife, Hana, who came from an Orthodox family of Holocaust survivors.
At that point, Wexler had already become more observant at home.
"If my family was watching TV on Friday night, I had to make sure I wasn't the last to leave the room so someone else would turn off the television," said Wexler of his gradual move toward more observance.
While an undergraduate student at UCLA, he took evening classes at what is now Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion to learn Hebrew and Jewish studies, but in 1968 he switched to UJ -- and has left only for a very brief time. He started in UJ's pre-rabbinic program in 1971, the first year the university began offering the first two years of study toward ordination, with the last three years in Israel and the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) in New York.
While he was a student at UJ, Leiber, a mentor Wexler considers close to saintly, told him there would be a position waiting once he was ordained. After a year in Israel, and three years on the East Coast -- during which time he got ordained at JTS and earned an MBA at Baruch College while Hana got a Ph.D in microbiology at Princeton -- Wexler came back to teach at the UJ. As a new faculty member, and while he and Hana began their family, he spent several more years at UCLA getting a Ph.D in Near Eastern Languages, specializing in the religions of ancient Mesopotamia.
He is widely respected as a gifted and inspiring teacher, teaching rabbinic students and lecturing at many venues on topics such as ethics, ancient and modern religions, Israel and American Jewry. He also takes time to teach several classes each year in the continuing education program.
His staff describes him as an attentive mentor.
"He gives me independence, but he guides me," said Levy, UJ vice president in charge of continuing education. "I run everything by him, but his leadership style is one that gives me freedom to do what I want to do."
And his personal touch also seems to have already won over Brandeis' leadership.
"We're thrilled with the fact that we will have a real leader in Bob Wexler," said Elaine Gill, who has been a Brandeis board member for 25 years. "I think he gets what Brandeis is about and I think he understands the importance of pluralism."
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