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Jewish Journal

New Skirball chair no stranger to community leadership

by Ryan Torok

January 31, 2014 | 12:41 pm

From left: Peter M. Weil, Uri D. Herscher and Howard L. Friedman. Photo courtesy of the Skirball Cultural Center

From left: Peter M. Weil, Uri D. Herscher and Howard L. Friedman. Photo courtesy of the Skirball Cultural Center

Twenty years ago, Peter M. Weil enjoyed a private tour of Hebrew University of Jerusalem that left a lasting impression. A friend of the university had arranged the visit, during which the school’s leaders took Weil to see their archive of some of Albert Einstein’s personal manuscripts.

“There’s a room, and they take down some boxes,” Weil remembered during a recent interview at his Beverly Hills home. Inside one of those boxes, Weil saw “the actual manuscript for E = MC2.” 

Weil was instrumental in helping bring that manuscript, as well as many other Einstein treasures, to the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles for the 2005 exhibition “Einstein,” organized in collaboration with Hebrew University and American Museum of Natural History.

Bringing together organizations for common causes is among the many talents Weil, 65, will draw upon in his new leadership position as chairman of the board of the Skirball, succeeding Howard Friedman, who served as the center’s founding chair for 18 years. Weil previously served as the board’s vice chairman.

“The Skirball has passed a baton between one historian and another, between one lover of the Jewish people and another, between one lover of the United States and another. How lucky are we?” Skirball President and CEO Uri D. Herscher said of Weil’s appointment, which became effective on Jan. 2. (Herscher also serves on the board of the Jewish Journal.)

“One of the main purposes of the Skirball is to welcome the stranger, to recognize that immigrants, even if they’re poor, even if they’re uneducated, have a lot to add to the American multicultural fabric,” Weil, who has served on the board of the Skirball since 2003, said of why he is excited about his new position.

Weil served as president of the City of Los Angeles’ planning commission, American Friends of Hebrew University’s western region and American Jewish Committee’s Southern California chapter. 

He is also a member of the executive committee of the board of directors at his alma mater, University of Wisconsin (UW), and is currently the board president of the UW Hillel.

The leadership change at the Skirball coincides with the completion of the campus. It also marks the culmination of Weil’s ever-evolving relationship with Judaism. 

A managing partner at the law firm Glaser Weil, he said he grew up in a Reform household. Weil was born in 1948 in St. Louis, Mo., to German-refugee parents who escaped Nazi Germany. He attended public schools, and his Jewish observance was limited mostly to the High Holy Days.

In college, Weil studied American history. He also earned a master’s degree in the subject from University of California, Berkeley. But he soon discovered there weren’t many jobs in academia, so he opted for a career as a lawyer. Weil returned to UW, this time for law school, graduating in 1974.  

He spent several years working as an attorney in Chicago, but grew weary of the freezing temperatures. “I was one of those people who spent many days, in very cold weather, watching the Rose Bowl and seeing the person in shorts and a T-shirt runs across the field,” he said. Weil moved to the West Coast in 1977. 

Success in Los Angeles, coupled with his desire for community activism that began in college, prompted him to want to give back. In 1987, a friend introduced him to Herscher. 

Weil said he felt he had finally found something he’d been searching for.

“I remember going to hear Uri speak — it wasn’t just about raising money, and it wasn’t just about vision,” Weil recalled. “He talked about things that resonated.” The two became friends, connecting through their shared backgrounds as children of German immigrants and their passion for history. Weil also became an early donor to the Skirball.

Herscher’s influence was significant. By 1994, when Weil was thinking about having a wedding ceremony for his second marriage in Florence, Italy, Herscher urged Weil to consider having it in Jerusalem. 

It was during that trip, Weil’s first to Israel — he has since visited 11 times — that Weil was treated to the tour of the Einstein artifacts. 

“Hebrew University rolled out the red carpet, and I got very involved in the university,” Weil said of his ’94 visit. “In turn, it got me involved in other Jewish organizations, which in turn got me more involved with the Skirball.”

After Israel, he became increasingly involved with Jewish life. Today, it would be hard to overstate how much his connection to Jewish life has changed. During a recent meeting at his home, Weil came close to tears as he read this reporter excerpts from Mark Twain’s famous essay, “Concerning the Jews,” in which Twain marvels at the Jewish people’s against-all-odds ability to survive. 

Weil brings with him a breadth of contacts in the larger Los Angeles community. Richard Volpert, a partner at Glaser Weil, pointed out that Weil’s sizable network is a part of what makes him effective as a lay leader.

“He is a great networker, he is a great person at bringing people together.  … If he sees a problem on a board, he knows X on one board and Y from another place,” Volpert said.

Weil is the father of four children and grandfather of twins; he said he has attempted to bring a pluralistic Judaism into the home. His two youngest kids, ages 16 and 18, attended Stephen S. Wise Temple. His 18-year-old son, Alex, who was in Israel on a school fellowship at the time of the interview, attends Milken Community Schools. 

Weil’s wife, Julie, serves as secretary of the board of trustees at Milken, a non-denominational Jewish school.

“We’re all Jews, whether it’s Orthodox, Reform, Conservative — and that’s what I am drawn to,” Weil said of his family’s commitment to inclusive-style Judaism. “Pluralism … which is the main thing that the Skirball stands for.”

In becoming the Skirball’s highest-ranking board member, Weil said his objective is to help grow an already successful institution.

“The challenges are to keep it going, to tweak the vision, to continually re-evaluate the mission, exploring new ways to achieve the goals of the mission,” he said. 

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