March 22, 2007
UJ President Robert Wexler has roots in three denominations
We've been sitting at Starbucks over iced drinks for 20 minutes, and the subject of the University of Judaism (UJ) has yet to be brought up. We're schmoozing, Robert Wexler and I, and he asks a lot of questions about me -- where my grandparents are from, where I went to college, where my kids go to school. We talk about how parenting today is so different from how it was when we were each growing up, and we weigh the pros and cons of teens being tethered to their parents by the flip of a cell phone.
I've known Wexler, president of UJ, and his wife, Hana, for years -- we are all members of B'nai David-Judea Congregation -- but I have never really had a conversation with him. His heavy brow lends a slight surliness to his otherwise baby face, and he holds his social life close, with not a lot of small talk at Kiddush after services on Saturday mornings.
But it turns out that against all appearances of being reserved, Wexler, 55, is a people person. He is interested in quality interactions, ones where he can understand people and know what drives them, where they can enter into the long conversation of Jewish peoplehood.
In public, as well as in private, Wexler is comfortable and witty, speaking quickly but clearly with intellect and sometimes self-deprecating humor. He is respected for putting the university ahead of his own ego, and for his belief in the variegated and complex nature of Jewish identity -- whether at the UJ or in his own personal life.
That approach -- and the authentic nature of his interest in others -- has drawn people in and contributed to his sometimes understated success at the University of Judaism, which this week is announcing a merger with the Brandeis-Bardin Institute and a name change to American Jewish University.
Under Wexler's leadership, and with a $22 million donation, UJ opened up the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies in 1991 and began ordaining rabbis in 1995. The seminary now has 70 students enrolled, with a 100 percent placement rate for alumni.
He has recruited fresh lay leadership, nurtured young board members and cultivated large donors to support the annual campaign. During his tenure, the endowment has grown from $5 million to $80 million, and the operating budget deficit has shrunk to zero.
The UJ's public profile got a serious boost from the Public Lecture series, begun in 2001 soon after Wexler hired Gady Levy to revamp the Department of Continuing Education. The series now draws between 10,000 and 12,000 people annually.
The merger with Brandeis, which brings to the university a 2,800-acre asset, represents a pretty serious success for Wexler -- especially because the idea stemmed directly from Wexler's genuine interest in knowing other people.
Last year, Wexler invited Joseph Wapner -- the judge of "People's Court" fame -- to an intimate lunch with a handful of supporters, where they discussed pluralism and Wexler's vision for the university -- planting the seed in Wapner's mind for a merger between UJ and Brandeis, where Wapner has been active for decades.
Wexler holds these small lunches regularly, a tradition he adapted from UJ's president emeritus David Leiber. While Leiber's habit was to speak at a large annual breakfast, Wexler wanted to establish a two-way interaction.
"If you have a vision for something, and if through your personal connection you can share that vision with others, they can help you refine it, and you can develop a partnership," said Wexler, who also invites longtime UJ supporters to his home for Shavuot and Sukkot. "I can't look at donors as a means to end. I might be a better fundraiser if I did -- but I can't, and so they become a part of my life in a meaningful way."
Over the past few months, Wexler had lunch or breakfast with each of Brandeis's 25 board members individually, in addition to meeting several times with the board as a group.
His connection to Peter Lowy, chairman of the UJ, is comfortable and yet substantial. The two met at the home of Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles President John Fishel, and Wexler and Lowy now sit together at B'nai David Judea. In conversation with the pair, they play off each other with witty banter, but also with real ideas and mutual respect.
Wexler is steadfast in his commitment to a Judaism free of constricting labels. When he was being interviewed for the position of UJ president 16 years ago, he laid his terms out clearly.
"If you want someone to be head of the Conservative movement on the West Coast, I am clearly not the right person for that," he recalls telling the search committee. "I am a Conservative rabbi and I believe in the ideology, but I'm very traditional and have ties in the Orthodox community and I grew up in the Reform community."
"It seems to me that a place called the University of Judaism should serve the whole community," he said. "And if that is what you are interested in, I would very much like to have the chance to move this institution to the next phase."
Since becoming president, Wexler has made it his mission to convince the L.A. Jewish community, to varying degrees of success, and to the consternation of some Conservative Jews, that the UJ is not Conservative. He has founded programs to serve Orthodox, Reform and Reconstructionist institutions, and the university's programs are meant to appeal to a whole range of Jews -- including the 75 percent who don't belong to synagogues, Wexler says.
Wexler doesn't consider himself a post-denominationalist, because he appreciates that the movements appeal to different people.
Rather, he thinks denominationalism is limited. "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."