Robert Wexler, president of American Jewish University (AJU), eschews the labels of Judaism’s mainstream denominations.
“I’m Jewish,” Wexler said last week. “Religious.”
That’s one way of putting it. Wexler is also an ordained Conservative rabbi who attends a Modern Orthodox synagogue and has been running a (mostly) non-denominational institute of Jewish learning since 1992, much of his professional life. Rounding out this trifecta of major Jewish influences, Wexler subscribes to the social philosophy of Mordecai Kaplan, the founder of Reconstructionist Judaism.
Indeed, AJU, which until its 2007 merger with the Brandeis-Bardin Institute was known as the University of Judaism (UJ), was itself inspired by an essay by Kaplan, and his essay “A University of Judaism: A Compelling Need” gave the school not just its mission and model but also its original name. Founded in 1947, the UJ was originally a joint venture of the Bureau of Jewish Education and the Conservative movement, both of which were looking to serve the growing Jewish population of Los Angeles.
Wexler, who studied Talmud at the university while an undergraduate at UCLA, said it was, at the time, “a very schizophrenic institution.”
Today’s AJU is more expansive than ever. Wexler’s tenure as president has overseen marked growth, in part thanks to new programs like the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, founded in 1996, and the high-profile Public Lecture Series, which since 2002 has drawn thousands to hear from former presidents, prime ministers and other government leaders. Indeed, under Wexler, AJU’s profile has developed not only through academic pursuits, but also through a combination of mergers and acquisitions.
On May 12, AJU will honor Wexler and celebrate his 60th birthday. The Jewish Journal caught up with him to talk about his 18 years of service at AJU, and about the future.
Jewish Journal: I understand that you prefer to be addressed as doctor, rather than rabbi. Why is that?
Robert Wexler: Actually I prefer to be called Bob. Barring that, if I’m in the academic realm, and I’m functioning as president of the university, doctor. If I’m at someone’s bar mitzvah, if I’m the rabbi, or if I’m doing a funeral, then it’s Rabbi Wexler.
JJ: When people think about a university, often people will point to labs or libraries. Is there a central core that you feel holds the AJU together?
RW: You mean a physical facility?
JJ: I mean, at AJU, there are so many disparate things going on, between the summer camp —
RW: And the academics.
JJ: And the Whizin Center for Continuing Education.
RW: Right, but the way we look at it in terms of our mission, there’s two aspects to it. One is leadership preparation. We want to provide leadership for the community at every level. The other is educational and cultural outreach. Virtually everything that we do fits into one of those categories.
JJ: But saying that the American Jewish University is about outreach and about leadership preparation is kind of the second step. What’s the first step? Is there an overarching mission that those two goals are in the service of?
RW: I don’t think that I have anything earth-shattering to say on that level. It’s the usual dualism of Jewish continuity, but continuity for a purpose — meaning that it’s the continuation of Jewish life, but with the assumption that Jewish life has something important to contribute to the world. But it’s not a particularly original thought.
JJ: The school changed its name from the University of Judaism to American Jewish University when it merged with Brandeis-Bardin Institute.
RW: I loved the name University of Judaism on an emotional level — because I was here as a student. But I remember one of my Israeli friends, many years ago, said to me, “All of Judaism? You’re doing all of Judaism?” When you’re used to a name, you don’t really think about how it’s perceived on the outside, and it very much said “rabbinical school” to a lot of people. The irony is, of course, that’s one of our more recent programs.
JJ: When one looks at the recent history of American Jewish University, it’s hard not to notice a lot of acquisitions of programs, of properties.
RW: Right, but they’re very consistent. Brandeis-Bardin was very consistent with our outreach function, and because we didn’t have a conference center where we could do things over weekends in a nonurban setting, that provided us with a number of wonderful opportunities.
JJ: When Jay Sanderson became president of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles in 2010, AJU acquired the Jewish Television Network (JTN), of which he was then CEO. Sanderson said he felt confident JTN was going to be in good hands at AJU. How do you make people feel like AJU, which has its own specific mission, is going to be a good steward to these programs?
RW: Hopefully it’s because we have a good track record. Brandeis, they had two things that they were looking at. One is that we were nondenominational. The other was their sense that we knew how to run a nonprofit organization, and they felt that we wouldn’t mismanage what was so precious to them.
Having said that, we would never have taken on JTN if we didn’t already have in our strategic plan, for about five years, something that was called our “third campus” — a cyber campus. Likely the name will change at some point, because it’s not really a Jewish Television Network anymore, so we’ll have to come up with a new way of explaining what it is. We want to make it more interactive.
JJ: I understand that a new library space is part of what AJU is raising money for at the upcoming dinner.
RW: We’ve never had a library here. What we call a library is — we took a bunch of classrooms and part of the parking lot when we first moved into this building and cobbled it together and created a space and called it a library. We’ve raised over $4 million toward the new library project, which will allow us to start construction this summer.
JJ: You’re turning 60. How are you feeling about that?
RW: The funny thing is, now people know how old I am. If you’re having a dinner in honor of your 60th birthday and it’s public, people are going to know that you’re turning 60, obviously. But that part didn’t penetrate. So people come up to me and say, “I had no idea you were that old!” And then I thought, OK, did I just get complimented or insulted? I’m not sure. Does it mean, “You don’t look that old and that’s great”? Or, “I kind of thought you were young and vital, and now I’m finding out you’re 60. So are you retiring soon?”
JJ: They say that?
RW: No, no one says that. They don’t go that far.