David Woznica was anything but a model Hebrew school student. At Congregation Adat Ari El in North Hollywood, his exasperated teachers often made him sit alone on "the bench" as punishment for interrupting them with jokes and whispers.
Fast forward 35 years. On a recent Friday night, Rabbi David Woznica, the 48-year-old executive vice president for Jewish affairs at The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, returned to Adat Ari El, for the first time in decades, to deliver a speech before a sold-out audience of 250 on how to feel the presence of God by living as a committed Jew. His voice rising, he admonished the crowd to invite a lonely Holocaust survivor over for dinner, to help those less fortunate and to pray for their children on Shabbat.
"You don't need a Ph.D. in Judaism or even know an alef from a bet," Woznica said. "All you have to do is put your hands on their heads and touch their souls with yours. Think of that. Think of how easy that is, yet how meaningful it is. They will remember it forever."
With his days of Jewish rebellion long behind him, Woznica has won a legion of devotees with his passion for Judaism. Since returning to Southern California in mid-2001, Woznica has spent the past two years at The Federation putting together lectures and courses. With the fervor of a missionary, he sees his role as nothing less than to spread the word about the beauty of Judaism and to help Jews see their religion's relevance to their daily lives.
From 1991 to 2001, Woznica served as director of the Bronfman Center for Jewish Life at the 92nd Street Y in New York City, where he oversaw thousands of hours of adult Jewish education and 35 high-profile lectures per year.
The rabbi's work has taken him across the globe. Over the years, he has talked about God with former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo and Nobel Prize-winner Elie Wiesel, and moderated discussions with Harvard Law School professor Alan Dershowitz, Rabbi Harold Kushner and author Amos Oz, among others. He recently interviewed presidential candidate Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.) and his wife, Hadassah, discussing politics, religion and social issues. C-SPAN aired the event.
"I like him as a person and as a rabbi to his students," Wiesel told The Journal. "Whatever he does, he does with all his heart and soul. He speaks well, understands well. He possesses all the qualities a good rabbi has."
Plaudits like those led Federation President John Fishel and former Chairman Todd Morgan to aggressively pursue Woznica, beginning in 2000, for a post at The Federation. The decision to hire him has earned kudos along with some criticism. Woznica's ability to touch people has generated enthusiasm among many local Jews. However, a few observers wonder whether those talents are being put to satisfactory use. They question how Woznica -- hired at a six-figure salary less than six months before the organization laid off several employees for budgetary reasons -- has earned his keep, especially since he has worked under the radar of many Southland Jews, with the exception of donors and Federation employees.
"It is not apparent to me that The Federation, on any level, has a strategy for using him as a speaker, strategizer, educator, spiritual force or inspirer in any major, public way," said Gerald Bubis, a former Federation vice president and board member. "His talents are underutilized, and, as a result, I think the community is undeserved."
Indeed, The Federation has just put together a special committee to come up with ways to find "more opportunities for putting him in front of people," said Morgan, now a Federation board member.
Fishel said his organization had hoped to replicate the 92nd Street Y's success when it brought Woznica on. Initially, The Federation had wanted to open a community center on a property adjacent to the now defunct Bay Cities Jewish Community Center (JCC). There, Woznica could have offered classes and sponsored high-profile talks as he did in New York, Fishel said. But the JCC's financial problems and the soft economy forced The Federation to delay those plans indefinitely. Also, crises in Israel and Argentina demanded the organization's attention, which meant Woznica "was a little slow to get traction at first," Fishel added.
Nonetheless, Fishel said that he thought Woznica is a valuable addition to The Federation, and plans to renew his contract. One idea bandied about is for the rabbi to hold events at the West Valley JCC in West Hills or the Westside JCC on Olympic Boulevard on a regular basis in the near future.
"I'd like to bring him to the masses in a thoughtful way, and am still jazzed about the prospect of having something parallel to what the 92nd Street Y does," Fishel said. "I think if you can get people to think Judaically and see Judaism in their lives, they're going to see the importance of Federation and other Jewish organizations."
One benefit of such connections could be increased donations to The Federation, which raises money to fund 15 recipient organizations, including Jewish Vocational Service, Jewish Family Service and Jewish Big Brothers/Big Sisters. For the past decade, giving to The Federation's Annual Campaign has been relatively flat, hovering around $40 million. Fishel and others hope that an offshoot of Woznica's heightened visibility could spark a flow of dollars into the organization's coffers from enthusiastic, re-engaged Jews.
It worked in New York. Daniel R. Kaplan, former president and chairman of the 92nd Street Y, said Woznica's work helped attract new donors to the organization, where 1,200 people regularly attend the rabbi's High Holiday services.
"David would travel and lecture everywhere, bringing joy and increasing the Y's image," Kaplan said. "Fundraising is partly image, and David certainly enhanced our image. No question about that."
One common question among critics is why The Federation hired Woznica when it already employs Rabbi Mark Diamond, executive director of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California. They ask: Why does the organization need two rabbis?
Fishel said both men make important -- but different -- contributions. Diamond helps with interfaith activities and works with area rabbis in rabbinical associations. Woznica infuses The Federation and the community with Jewish values.
To help boost The Federation's profile, Woznica said he has worked tirelessly since coming on board. In one week in early May, he held a study session on the Ten Commandments with young attorneys and gave four speeches, including one at UCLA for Israel Independence Day. He has also given a series of lectures in the Conejo Valley about what makes Judaism beautiful and worth perpetuating; he has overseen a 10-week course on Jewish leaders, including Moses, and Jewish ethics for The Federation women's lay leadership; and he held a dialogue with Weisel in February at a Federation dinner for large donors. "I want to reach Jews across the board," he said.
Woznica said he hoped to hold more high-profile dialogues here with major public figures, as he did in New York. He also wants to offer a course for newlyweds on Jewish insights on marriage, parenting and family.
"I feel so busy and torn in so many directions but in a good way," he said in an interview at his book-lined office. "I always feel I can do more, and I would hope I can make as significant a contribution to the L.A. Federation as I did to the 92nd Street Y."
Woznica grew up in the San Fernando Valley and graduated from Grant High School in 1973. He went on to earn a bachelor's degree in psychology from UCLA. It was around this time that future author and radio talk show host Dennis Prager entered his life, exposing the future rabbi to the power and pleasure of Judaism, Woznica said.
Prager, then director of the Brandeis-Bardin Institute in Simi Valley, challenged him to think about the religion, its mission and its responses to contemporary moral and spiritual questions. Inspired by Prager and others, Judaism became an integral part of Woznica's life, informing his decisions, actions and world view.
"I saw immediately in him this rare combination of conscientiousness, goodness and a fine mind," Prager said.
Woznica later enrolled in the rabbinical program at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles. In 1987, he headed east to study at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) in New York, which ordained him in 1990.
Woznica said his love of Judaism and desire to share its beauty led him to the rabbinate. As the son of a Holocaust survivor, though, he conceded other forces might have also played a role.
"Is the Shoah part of my motivation for being Jewish? Yes," he said. "Why? Because other people suffered so much for the principle I have the privilege of living."
In 1990, Woznica, fresh out of HUC-JIR, landed a coveted position running a Jewish outreach program at the 92nd Street Y. Kaplan said that his earnestness, decency and knowledge so impressed executives that they promoted him one year later to head the newly created Bronfman Center. Despite Woznica's relative inexperience, he beat out 11 highly qualified candidates for the position, Kaplan added.
Under Woznica, Jewish education flourished at the 92nd Street Y and a cavalcade of major religious and political figures dropped by to give speeches. The rabbi, his wife, Beverly, and their two young sons were quite happy in New York. Woznica found the city's intellectual environment stimulating and enjoyed his work. Beverly Woznica, a fundraiser, worked as director of the Wall Street division at UJA-Federation of New York. Under her directorship, the division grew from $20 million to $30 million in five years.
So when Fishel and Morgan began pursuing him, Woznica was in no hurry to leave the Big Apple. But after a year of wooing, he eventually took the job at The Federation. Woznica said he came to that decision, because he thought he could have a big impact. He also wanted his children to be close to their surviving grandparents.
Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean and founder of the Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, said Woznica should successfully transplant some of that New York magic to the Southland.
"The Jewish community and the L.A. Federation are very lucky to have a person like him," said Hier, who spoke at the 92nd Street Y during Woznica's tenure. "He reaches out to everyone in the community, and his agenda is to foster understanding and unity among Jews. He's very effective at it."