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March 22, 2007

UJ’s Gady Levy excited and eager about Brandeis-Bardin programs

http://www.jewishjournal.com/articles/item/ujs_gady_levy_excited_and_eager_about_brandeisbardin_programs_20070323

Gady Levy got turned on to Judaismat Camp Ramah. Photo courtesy The University of Judaism

Gady Levy got turned on to Judaism
at Camp Ramah. Photo courtesy
The University of Judaism

Gady Levy, vice president in charge of the Department of Continuing Education at the University of Judaism (UJ), likes to talk about how "all over the place" he is. It is true that as he talks about the new opportunities offered up by the merger between UJ and the Brandeis-Bardin Institute (BBI), he verbally skitters between programs and philosophies and a zillion new ideas he has. But it is also true that all of his scattered energy focuses in on one goal: enriching people's lives through Judaism.

That goal seems to be in consonance with BBI's goal to "touch and to teach," and most of BBI's programs will now fall under Levy's Department of Continuing Education at the newly named American Jewish University.

Take the program he's already starting for screenwriters. The Bruce Geller Screenwriting Competition, which appears in the just mailed UJ Spring catalogue, offers a $25,000 prize for a screenplay with some sort of Jewish element -- a Jewish character, say, or a Jewish storyline.

Why is Levy doing this? First, it will propagate Jewish content. Screenwriters will think about infusing their scripts with something Jewish and just that act of Jewish consciousness may, in a best-case scenario, end up reaching millions, and in all other cases might light a small Jewish spark in the mind of the aspiring artist.

Second, he hopes it will attract the notice of a hip, young cadre who have never heard of the UJ (much less the American Jewish University). With submissions being solicited through stylish ads in Daily Variety and the Hollywood Reporter, Levy hopes to develop a mailing list and then a cohesive group of screenwriters, who then might be inspired to come to another class or attend an art opening or play at the university.

Why does Levy care so much about exposing more people to Judaism?

Because Judaism changed his life.

Levy, 38 and single, was a secular teenager from Israel when he arrived in San Diego in the 11th grade.

"I loved Yom Kippur in Israel, because it meant you could ride your bike in the street," he says of his religiosity.

He was miserable that first year in San Diego, and his mother urged him to attend Camp Ramah. The camp director almost blew it by reminding Levy in a pre-camp interview not to forget his talit and tefilin for daily prayers. Levy had been to synagogue once -- for his own bar mitzvah.

He went to camp and ended up returning to Ramah for 10 more summers as a camper and staff member.

"Here I was at this cold public high school, and I wanted to be connected. I never realized I had a need until my need was fulfilled," he says.

Levy is still not religious and rarely attends synagogue. But he loves the Jewish people, Jewish culture, Jewish history -- anything Jewish.

Levy went to college at the UJ and at CSUN, then held a few jobs as a youth director. He earned a master's in education from CSUN, a masters in Jewish education from UJ, and a doctorate in education from Pepperdine University.

He was principal of the Hebrew school at Adat Ari El, a Conservative synagogue in Valley Village, for seven years before Robert Wexler, impressed with Levy as a UJ student, hired him as director of the Department of Continuing Education six years ago.

With splashy but sophisticated advertising and innovative offerings, Levy has transformed the department into a revenue-producing, profile-raising entity that sees 10,000 to 12,000 people a year at its various programs, which cover everything from a two-year master class in Judaism to Shabbat dinner with James Carville to stone carving and sculpting.

He brought back the long dormant politics-focused Public Lecture series and stunned himself and everyone else by selling out the Universal Amphitheater with Bill Clinton as a keynote in 2001. Twenty-three lectures later, he is still selling 5,000 tickets per event.

UJ recently received an $32 million donation from the Whizin Family Foundation -- enough to rename the department the Whizin Center for Continuing Education. Levy plans to use the grant to seed one new program every two years, which gives him the possibility to think big.

His inagural program will be Los Angeles' first major Jewish Book Festival, co-sponsored by The Jewish Journal, at UJ's Bel Air campus this November, and he's thinking about what might happen if he moved that to the BBI campus the following year.

He is spinning with many new ideas for the Simi Valley campus.

Now, he can complement UJ's Introduction to Judaism class with Brandeis' intermarried weekend. The college-level program of BCI is natural for the university's student population, and, he suggests, how about a retreat on women in leadership? -- maybe in partnership with Hadassah or National Council for Jewish Women? -- with someone like Madeleine Albright (who already has participated in the Public Lectures) as a scholar in residence?

As someone inspired by having gone to camp, he is eager to integrate the camp experience into what is already going on.

"When this whole [merger] conversation started, I realized that I should have gone to BCI when I was younger," Levy says. "I am truly excited about this."

-- JGF

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