With pomp, ritual and the added joy that comes when a long wait precedes a happy event, the Los Angeles school of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) ordained its first rabbis May 5 at Wilshire Boulevard Temple.
"The kvell factor is huge," said Rabbi Lewis Barth, dean of HUC-JIR's Los Angeles school. Carrying Torah scrolls and wearing white robes, the eight new rabbis marched into the ornate sanctuary of the oldest Reform synagogue in Los Angeles, following a procession of more than 100 local rabbis, academics, HUC-JIR alumni and lay leaders.
A sponsoring rabbi presented each of the new rabbis. Rabbi David Ellenson, HUC-JIR's president, blessed each one beneath a canopy created for the ceremony by local artist and longtime Reform benefactor Peachy Levy. The canopy bore sets of tablets, with phrases summarizing the values the new rabbis assimilated during their training and will bring to their work.
An emotional Ellenson, who taught at the Los Angeles school for more than 20 years before he was named president last June, told the gathering of more than 1000 well-wishers that the ceremony gave him special joy, because he had been a classroom teacher to each new rabbi.
"To have taught you and to ordain you as rabbis today constitutes a privilege beyond anything I can imagine," he told them.
The five women and three men receiving smicha are the first Reform rabbis to be ordained on the West Coast.
The Los Angeles College of Jewish Studies, established by the Reform movement in 1947, formally became part of the HUC-JIR system in 1954. For more than 40 years, it offered only the second and third years of rabbinical training. Since 1973, all rabbinical students take their first year of classes at the HUC-JIR campus in Jerusalem.
In 1998, the college's national board of governors approved expansion of the Los Angeles school's program to the fourth and fifth years, bringing the school to parity with the other three HUC-JIR sites as an ordaining campus.
Ellenson called the May 5 ordination "a sign of the maturation of West Coast Jewry," given extra impetus by the decision of the University of Judaism (UJ), a Conservative institution, to expand its rabbinical seminary in the early 1990s. UJ held its first ordination three years ago.
"These steps by the Reform and Conservative movements reflect the recognition ... of the real presence and concentration of Jews in the Western United States," Ellenson told The Journal.
The Jewish population in the Western states has tripled since 1970, Barth added, with a parallel growth in Reform synagogues and schools and a desire for Western-trained professionals to staff them.
Ellenson acknowledged that "there's been a lag time" in expanding HUC-JIR's rabbinical program in Los Angeles, in part because the power centers of American Jewry historically have been in the East. But now, he said, "Jewry on the West Coast has real muscle to flex," as seen not only in the seminaries but in popular institutions, such as the Simon Wiesenthal Center and the Skirball Cultural Center.
Only two of the eight new rabbis are going straight into pulpits.
Kennard Lipman will serve as rabbi for Congregation Brit Shalom in State College, Pa., and Robert Haas will become assistant rabbi at Temple Shalom in Dallas.
New rabbis Miriam Cotzin and John Fishman are deferring long-term plans until their respective spouses finish rabbinical school. Tali Hyman will matriculate in the doctorate program in Education and Jewish Studies at New York University, and Melissa Fogel, who plans a career in Jewish education, has been hired as ninth-grade dean and rabbi at Milken Community High School of Stephen S. Wise Temple.
Although the number of the new Los Angeles rabbis headed immediately for congregational work is low -- at the New York and Cincinnati campuses, about 60 percent of the new rabbis in each class take pulpits -- and will do little to assuage a persistent shortage of rabbis in Reform congregations, HUC-JIR Los Angeles' administrators appear unconcerned.
Both Barth and Rabbi Richard Levy, director of HUC-JIR Los Angeles' rabbinical school, told The Journal that they thought a majority of the class members will be working in congregations within a few years. They also pointed out that there are needs for rabbis in other areas of Jewish institutional life.
"The college needs very badly to train its own scholars -- there's a value to having faculty who are themselves rabbis," Levy said. He added that "there should be more Reform rabbis in Hillel chapters, more Reform rabbis in chaplaincy roles." By training rabbis for diverse jobs, he continued, "we're helping the Reform movement wherever students go."
HUC-JIR's Los Angeles school, housed in an almost windowless brick-and-concrete building just north of USC, is historically the least celebrated of the college's campuses, although its education and communal services schools, both founded in the late 1960s, have trained a significant number of leading U.S. Jewish educators and institutional professionals and its rabbinical program has been the launching pad for hundreds of careers.
"There was always a spirit here, a love, a concern for students that was really quite remarkable," Levy said. Several of the new rabbis, in interviews with The Journal, effusively praised the professors they studied with on the Los Angeles campus.
The ordination had special resonance for Barth, a lifelong Los Angeles resident, who has spent almost his entire career at HUC-JIR's Los Angeles school.
"Personally, it's the fulfillment of a dream I've had for over three decades," he said. "While it is my view that this should have happened 25 years ago, there is a right time for everything, and this is the perfect moment."
Plenty of Jews during the past 35 years or so have embraced Eastern religion, but relatively few have come out the other side to become rabbis.
Ken Lipman, 52, ordained by Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion on May 5, left New York for college at the University of Chicago at age 16, but he dropped out in 1968 to search for inner truth, offering that all-purpose explanation: "It was the '60s."
He discovered Tibetan Buddhism during a sojourn in India the following year, and until the late '80s, he was immersed in Buddhist learning.
He worked as director of the East-West Psychology Program of the California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco.
"I was a leader of a Buddhist community, and I saw that there were problems in the community, problems with interpersonal relationships," Lipman said. "So I talked to psychologists in the community, and being psychologists, they were all Jews, and I realized that what we were talking about was being Jewish, and that I had Jewish notions about community. I just followed my nose back to Judaism."
Mysticism and meditation still form a large part of Lipman's study and practice, facets of Judaism he explains on his Web site, www.innerjew.com. "Mysticism is an integral part of our Jewish heritage," he said in his ordination statement. "Unfortunately ... liberal Judaism has repressed it in the name of progress and rationality."
This summer, Lipman will bring his vision to the Jews of State College, Pa., home of Penn State University, where he will begin his career as a rabbi.
"I hope to do my part to make this knowledge [of Jewish mysticism] available to liberal Jews again," he said, "by showing how it is compatible with modern thinking and pluralistic values." -- Ellen Jaffe-Gill, Contributing Writer