March 22, 2007
BBI and UJ join up to forge a home for pluralistic Judaism in landmark merger
(Page 3 - Previous Page)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.