In April 2009, the Los Angeles wing of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) looked like it might shut down. The leading school for training Reform rabbis, cantors, Jewish educators and others had been badly hurt by the financial crisis, and its leaders were entertaining the possibility of closing two of its four campuses in order to eliminate a $3 million budget shortfall.
Today, thanks to a rapid outpouring of community support and concern, all four HUC-JIR campuses remain in full operation, and on Feb. 6, the Los Angeles branch, located next to the University of Southern California, will be named to honor the memory of Jack H. Skirball. The decision follows a $10 million gift from the Skirball Foundation to HUC-JIR’s endowment, but the naming is intended to recognize Skirball’s role in building up the Reform movement’s West Coast home over the course of his life — and, indeed, even decades after his death in 1985.
Skirball was ordained at HUC-JIR’s Cincinnati branch and served as a Reform congregational rabbi in the Midwest for nearly a decade before going on to become a successful film producer and real estate developer. He never forgot his alma mater, and he was the primary advocate for the establishment of HUC-JIR’s Los Angeles campus in the 1950s.
“He really was, I would say, the lone voice [on the HUC-JIR board of governors] that let the board know that, actually, there was Jewish life west of the Mississippi,” said Rabbi Uri D. Herscher, founding president and CEO of the Skirball Cultural Center, as well as a trustee of the Skirball Foundation.
HUC-JIR President Rabbi David Ellenson said that while the $10 million gift from the Skirball Foundation “triggered” the decision to name the campus in Skirball’s memory, “he was the prime benefactor of the Los Angeles campus,” Ellenson said. “With this additional donation that the Skirball Foundation made — on top of many other donations made by the Skirball Foundation over the years — it was felt that it was appropriate to recognize the role that Jack Skirball played in the creation of the Los Angeles campus.”
In addition to large contributions to HUC-JIR, Skirball also made smaller gifts to the institution. “I received the Audrey and Jack Skirball Best Sermon Award,” Herscher said. Herscher first met the Skirballs in 1964 as a rabbinic student at HUC-JIR, and he still remembers the amount of the award: $18. “I think I was able to buy three dinners,” Herscher said.
More important, the award came with an invitation to have dinner with the Skirballs at their home. “Jack always celebrated the future, and the future meant training new rabbis and other Jewish educators,” said Herscher, who went on to become a longtime executive vice president and dean of the four-campus HUC-JIR, with his office on the Los Angeles campus. “He was more than 45 years my senior and took me under his wing as a mentor, because Jack Skirball may have been nearly 90 years of age when he died, but he was among the youngest people I ever met.”
Today, Skirball is probably best known in Los Angeles as the namesake of the Skirball Cultural Center in the Sepulveda Pass. The center opened in 1996 and receives about 500,000 visitors a year. It got its start on the Los Angeles HUC-JIR campus as the much smaller Skirball Museum, founded in 1971. There are also museums named for Skirball on the HUC-JIR campuses in Cincinnati and Jerusalem.
Ellenson and Herscher will both speak at the Feb. 6 Los Angeles campus dedication ceremony. “Jack would’ve been very proud that the campus that he helped to found will now bear his name,” Herscher said. l