A delicious breeze wafted through the white tent erected on the brand-new, football field-sized parking lot of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) on May 14, cooling gowned graduates, faculty, and alumni -- plus a bevy of proud relatives and friends -- as the school awarded degrees to a group of freshly minted Jewish educators and communal service professionals and a clutch of rabbis-to-be.
The students were all smiles as they received scrolls, academic hoods and congratulations from Rabbi Lewis M. Barth, dean of HUC-JIR's Los Angeles school, and Rabbi Norman J. Cohen, acting president of the four-campus system, along with the leaders of the various academic schools at the local campus.
Cohen outlined the remarkable growth of the Los Angeles campus, which has added faculty and programs in recent years and will ordain its first class of rabbis next spring. Twelve of the students honored May 14 were rabbinic students, nine earning master of arts degrees in Hebrew letters, who will be ordained two years from now; the other three completed their rabbinic studies in Los Angeles and were headed to New York for ordination on May 20.
The school also awarded five master's degrees in Jewish communal service and 11 in Jewish education. Three other students, including commencement speaker Jordanna Cooper, earned joint degrees in both disciplines.
In her address, Cooper pointed out that trends in American Jewish life tended away from communal activity and toward idiosyncratic practice.
"If Jews want to define Judaism for themselves in their own homes and are not interested in being part of a community, should you and I be afraid for our very new jobs?" Cooper asked her fellow graduates. "What are you going to tell [people] ... when they ask us, 'Why should I be Jewish?' 'Why should I be active in the Jewish community?' We have to come up with something to tell them, and it's gotta be good."
Ruth Weisberg, dean of USC's School of Fine Arts, gave the commencement address, underscoring HUC-JIR's close relationship with its larger neighbor. Weisberg was awarded an honorary doctorate, as was Sister Karen Kennelly, president emerita of another HUC-JIR neighbor, Mount St. Mary's College.
During a morning worship service, 17 HUC-JIR alumni -- not only rabbis but educators, communal service workers and a cantor -- were awarded honorary doctorates on the 25th anniversary of their having graduated from the college. Among the local honorees were Rabbi Laura Geller of Temple Emanuel in Beverly Hills, Rabbi Steven Carr Reuben of Kehillat Israel in Pacific Palisades, Rabbi Jerald Brown of Temple Ahavat Shalom in Northridge, and Rivka Dori, longtime Hebrew professor at HUC-JIR.
The commencement exercises came three weeks after the college's 125th anniversary celebration on April 22, which was a day of study, song and schmoozing during which L.A. City Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas presented a proclamation honoring the school's long presence in the city.
Graduation ended with a bountiful dessert reception, a sweet ending to a happy day for the L.A. Jewish community as well as the new degree-holders.