When he took over as dean of the Los Angeles campus of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) in July 2010, Josh Holo, already a professor at the college, brought with him a few photographs of 11th-century letters to hang on the wall behind his desk. Among the letters is one that mentions a major problem for the Jewish communities in Egypt at the time: how to raise funds to redeem fellow Jews who had been taken captive by pirates.
Getting people to support HUC-JIR, the Reform movement’s preeminent academic institution on the West Coast, doesn’t have the urgency of freeing hostages from the clutches of pirates — at least not anymore.
But just two years ago, it looked like two of the four HUC-JIR campuses might have to close due to financial difficulties, including the one in Los Angeles. “We entered crisis mode,” Holo said.
Then-dean Steven F. Windmueller helped shepherd the local branch of HUC-JIR through those challenging months. “We lived through a period of testing the mettle,” Windmueller remembers. “We’re certainly in a stronger and more secure place than we were several years ago.”
That is due at least in part to a $10 million gift from the Skirball Foundation, for HUC-JIR’s endowment (see sidebar). The L.A. campus was renamed on Feb. 6 in honor of Jack Skirball, an HUC–JIR-ordained Reform rabbi.
Holo is glad the school has put that tumultuous period behind it. “We’re back doing our work rather than worrying about our work. We are getting our house in order. We have a plan,” Holo said. “We’re either at or ahead of the plan, and that allows us to feel like we’re being responsible, and we can put our nose back to the grindstone and do what we do — which is studying and learning and training our professionals.”
L.A. HUC-JIR campus named for Skirball
At a midday ceremony on Sunday, Feb. 6, the Los Angeles branch of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion officially became the Jack H. Skirball Campus. The decision, triggered by the Skirball Foundation’s recent $10-million donation to HUC-JIR’s endowment, recognizes Skirball’s role as a founder and consistent supporter of the Reform movement’s West Coast academic home.
Skirball was ordained as a Reform rabbi at the Cincinnati campus of HUC-JIR in 1921 and served as spiritual leader to two congregations in the Midwest before moving to Los Angeles where he became a film producer. Skirball later became a successful real estate developer but is today perhaps best remembered for his philanthropic support of HUC-JIR and the Skirball Cultural Center.
The Skirball Cultural Center, which opened in 1996, started out as the smaller Skirball Museum on the campus of HUC-JIR in 1971. Founded by Uri Herscher with Skirball’s support, the cultural center was initially conceived as a vehicle for HUC-JIR to reach a broader audience. The cultural center had a long-term lease on the land in the Sepulveda Pass; in 2010 it bought the underlying property and its core collection from HUC-JIR making it, for the first time, fully independent of the institution that served as its first home.
Those who addressed the crowd of about 100 on Sunday afternoon included leaders from both HUC-JIR and the Skirball Cultural Center.
It’s clear that these are the parts of the job that Holo enjoys most. “I love to teach,” Holo, 39, said. “I love my administration, and I don’t mind the fact that my administration takes me away from teaching, as long as I get to teach — and I do.” Upon becoming dean, Holo established a policy that will ensure that all of the future Reform rabbis and Jewish educators being trained at HUC-JIR will take one class with him during the time they are enrolled. “I want them to see the dean as a practicing scholar,” Holo said.
Holo’s scholarly work focuses on medieval Jewish history, and the photographs of letters hanging on his office wall are also included in his book, “Byzantine Jewry in the Mediterranean Economy” (Cambridge, 2009). Before becoming dean, Holo was already wearing an administrator’s hat along with his scholar’s cap. He was director of the Louchheim School of Judaic Studies, which serves as the undergraduate program in Jewish studies for University of Southern California, whose campus is adjacent to HUC-JIR’s.
He is only the second non-rabbi to serve as Los Angeles campus dean. The first was Windmueller, his predecessor, an experienced Jewish communal professional turned professor. Holo’s job is to chart a course for HUC-JIR in Los Angeles so that it can best prepare future rabbis to lead the Reform movement in the future.
“Generation Xers are really coming into their own, and Generation Yers are right behind them,” said Rabbi John Rosove, senior rabbi of Temple Israel of Hollywood, who has close relationships with both Windmueller and Holo as friends and congregants. A self-described “aging boomer,” Rosove said the experiences that impacted him growing up — the assassinations of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr., the Civil Rights Movement, the Vietnam War and the three major Israeli-Arab wars between 1948 and 1973 — are similar to those that shaped Windmueller, who is 68.
But for Holo — and even more so for Holo’s students — those events are the stuff of history. “They don’t have any personal memories of any of these things, and their experience of Jewish identity will necessarily be very different,” Rosove said. “I’m kind of excited to see what their generation will bring to the American Jewish community going forward.”
Holo’s personal upbringing wasn’t in the Reform movement. The Southern California native grew up attending a Conservative synagogue and a non-denominational day school. He often views the future of Reform Judaism through the lens of his expertise in medieval Jewish history.
“One of his great skills is to understand the nature of the challenges that confront the contemporary Jewish community in light of the historical sweep of the entire Jewish panorama,” Rabbi David Ellenson, president of HUC-JIR, said of Holo. “He brings the perspective of the Jewish past to the present.”
This quality was very much on display during a recent interview. Even when Holo was ostensibly talking about relatively recent trends in the Jewish community — Reform Jews who are incorporating the traditional practice of keeping kosher, for one — the patient and soft-spoken historian consistently referred back to the distant past. At one point, he explained in depth the medieval-era schism between Karaites and Rabbinites. Today, every major Jewish denomination — including Reform Judaism — comes from the Rabbinite tradition. Karaites, whose practice is derived from the Bible alone, have all but disappeared. The citation, which seemed like a digression at first, turned out to be completely integral to Holo’s explanation. It was easy to understand, yet not oversimplified.
It’s no wonder then that Holo’s favorite perk as dean is being able to ask the researchers on campus to meet with him and talk to him about their current work. “It’s not a tenure checkup or anything like that,” he said.
“I’m in this building with this incredible brain trust, and I get to have an hour and a half with them and just get plugged into this world of Jewish learning,” Holo said. “It’s such a privilege.”