Gady Levy, the dean of continuing education at the University of Judaism, faces a question familiar to Broadway and Hollywood producers.
"OK, so you had a big hit, but that was last time. Can you score again next year?"
The box office smash was a four-part lecture series last winter and spring starring former President Bill Clinton, former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, political consultant James Carville and Israel's former Prime Minister Ehud Barak. The big names sold out the 6,200-seat Universal Amphitheatre for four evenings, brought in close to $1.5 million in ticket sales and cleared $500,000-plus for University of Judaism (UJ) scholarships and programs.
Like any innovative impresario, the 33-year-old Levy has gambled on a different format for his new show. Under the overall theme of "Newsmakers and Those Who Report It," the 2003 series will kick off with the duo of former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and Israeli Foreign Affairs Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Jan. 13, followed on Feb. 10 with a quartet of TV media stars, Wolf Blitzer, Cokie Roberts, Charlie Rose and Tim Russert.
The husband-wife team of Al and Tipper Gore will be the headliners on March 10, and the series will conclude on April 14 with William Bennett, a conservative Republican and former secretary of education in the Reagan administration, facing liberal Democrat Mario Cuomo, former governor of New York.
It takes about a year to put together such a lecture series, from conception to presentation, but with Levy's customary luck, Kissinger is back in the news and former Vice President Gore's public profile may be on the ascent again come March.
A number of complaints last year scored the speakers lineup as too "Democratic" and "liberal." There have been fewer protests for the upcoming, more politically balanced series, most objecting to one or another of the speakers.
Despite the success of the first series, Levy said he wanted something more for an encore. "I don't believe in repeating any program," he said and pointed out that in contrast to solo speakers last time, he expects participants in the new series to engage in lively dialogues.
Levy acknowledged that he was uncertain whether he could repeat the "Clinton effect" for the 2003 series, but he is on track for another sellout at the Universal Amphitheatre. As of press time, 5,500 out of the 6,200 available tickets have been sold, with orchestra seats at $200 for the series and mezzanine seats at $180. The tickets for 400 patrons invited to post-talk receptions are sold out, and some 125 people have put up $2,500 each to share dinner with the speakers.
Levy said he hopes to make "a nice profit" this time, too, but he is even more pleased by the high profile the lecture series has given the UJ through national advertising and news stories. The publicity benefited other continuing education courses and programs, upping enrollment by about 15 percent.
The intense Levy can relax a bit now, but in the beginning, the initial lecture series was a big gamble. The UJ, with a long history of fiscal problems, had to lay out considerable sums up front for speakers and rental fees, with no assurance that the public would respond
"We were hoping the get maybe 3,000 people, and figured we would be lucky to clear $40,000," Levy said. He credited many people for the success of the project, particularly Dena Schechter, chairperson of the UJ board of directors.
"If she had said no [to the first lecture series], I wouldn't be sitting here now," he said.
Not counting the lecture series, the continuing education department's offerings of more than 200 classes, plus special programs and events, seminars and tours, attract about 12,000 students and participants of all ages annually.
Given that the university's enrollment of full-time undergraduates, graduate and rabbinical students stands at between 200 and 300, the question was put to Levy as to whether on the UJ campus the continuing education tail is wagging the dog.
He turned the query aside diplomatically, noting that "all of us at UJ have the same goal of enhancing the Jewish education of all parts of the community in creative and meaningful ways."
Levy was born in the Tel Aviv suburb of Ramat Gan, and his family left for the United States when he was 16 and settled in San Diego. His welcome there as a foreign teenager was not a happy one, and he had little contact with the Jewish community.
However, the following year, he spent a summer at Camp Ramah, the camping arm of the Conservative movement, and the experience "changed my life," he said.
He took his college freshman year at UJ, and then got his bachelor's degree in business and a master's degree in education, both at California State University Northridge.
At 22, he became youth director at Adat Ari El, a Conservative congregation in North Hollywood, and was soon promoted to school principal.
Levy returned to UJ for a master's degree in Jewish education, where one of his teachers was Dr. Robert Wexler, the UJ president. Four years ago, "the phone rang" and it was Wexler offering him the job as dean of continuing education.
Currently, Levy is working on his doctorate degree at Pepperdine University and writing a thesis analyzing the Jewish teaching profession in Los Angeles.
Asked for a self-appraisal, Levy said, "I've always had the tendency to think outside the box. I love coming up with a concept and then having it take shape. On this job, I'm lucky that Dr. Wexler has allowed me to take the ball and run with it."
All lectures take place at the Universal Amphitheatre, 100 Universal City Plaza, Universal City. Tickets are $180 (regular subscriber: mezzanine) and $200 (premier subscriber: orchestra and loge). For tickets, call (213) 252-8497 or visit www.ticketmaster.com.
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