Sitting in his sunny Bel Air hilltop office, the president of the University of Judaism (UJ), Dr. Robert Wexler, is in a cheerful mood.
A high-profile lecture series of top American and Israeli personalities is generating national attention and an unexpected financial bonanza. The university's continuing education arm is innovating new programs and drawing close to 10,000 participants. Enrollment in the young rabbinical school is running higher than anticipated.
Granted, there are also some nagging problems. As always, the fluctuating fiscal health of the institution is worrisome. The uncertain impact of the Sept. 11 attacks and a sliding economy has Wexler "holding my breath," he says. Undergraduate enrollment remains low. And some critics charge that the UJ has forsaken its responsibility as the flagship of Conservative Judaism on the West Coast.
The evolution of the University of Judaism and its 50-year-old president are closely intertwined. The UJ was founded in 1947, and Wexler was born three years later. In 1968, fresh out of high school, Wexler took his first UJ course during the summer session.
After receiving a doctorate in Near Eastern studies at UCLA and his ordination as a Conservative rabbi at the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS), followed by a lectureship at Princeton University, Wexler joined the UJ in 1978 as assistant to the dean of students.
In 1992, he followed the highly respected Dr. David Lieber as UJ president.
The institution Wexler took over was co-founded by the Los Angeles Bureau of Jewish Education and by the JTS in New York, the rabbinical training and academic center of the Conservative movement. UJ's guiding philosophy, however, was formulated by the great Jewish educator and thinker Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, author of the path-breaking "Judaism as a Civilization."
"Kaplan viewed the role of the Jewish university as a multicentered institution, in which the teaching of the liberal and fine arts was of equal importance to the training of rabbis," Wexler says.
The founding lay leaders of the UJ, men like Dore Schary and Milton Sperling, came from the Hollywood film industry and shared the view that the UJ should give equal emphasis to culture and to religion.
As to his personal outlook, Wexler says, "I am an observant Jew, but I feel just as comfortable with a social-action Jew or a cultural Jew."
He acknowledges that UJ administrators may not have consistently clarified their philosophical viewpoint, leading later to criticism among some Conservative synagogues.
In practice, Wexler interprets the UJ's "general educational mission to the community" and "eclectic approach to Judaism" broadly enough so that it easily accommodates a lecture series featuring former President Bill Clinton (Jan. 14); former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright (Feb. 11); political strategist James Carville (March 11); and Israel's former Prime Minister Ehud Barak (April 22).
Spearheaded by a massive advertising campaign -- including full-page ads in the Western editions of Time and Newsweek featuring the slogan, "If the University of Judaism can bring today's leaders to L.A. -- imagine what it can bring to you," -- the lecture series has been met with a public response that has even stunned its organizers.
The lectures were originally booked for the 3,000-seat Santa Monica Civic Auditorium, but as the wave of ticket requests rolled in, they were quickly transferred to the Universal Amphitheatre, which seats 5,000 in the orchestra level, and 1,200 in the mezzanine.
After the change of venue, the idea was to restrict seating to the lower level, but as demand continued, the upper level was opened up as well. By early this week, all but a hundred of the mezzanine tickets had been sold, and it's almost certain there will be a full house by the time Clinton takes the podium.
"I had no idea this series would be so popular," Wexler says, even though all four speakers have been closely involved in American-Israeli relations "I guess people, especially after Sept. 11, want direct access to those who have been in power. It's different from seeing them on TV," he adds.
The financial payback on the lecture series is equally impressive. Assuming the mezzanine is also filled, a total of 6,200 tickets will have been sold.
Of these, 120 tickets went for $2,500 each, with the holders entitled to a private dinner with each of the speakers. That's a total of $300,000.
Next, 400 people bought tickets at $400 each, entitling them to attend post-talk receptions for the speakers. That's another $160,000.
That leaves 5,680 general reserved seats for the series, going at $180 each, totaling $1,022,400.
The grand total thus comes to $1,482,400.
What about the expenses? Both Wexler and the Harry Walker Agency in New York, which represents Clinton and Barak, declined to discuss the speakers' fees.
However, inquiries to other booking agencies and to professionals familiar with the process yielded a fairly close consensus on the following going rates:
President Clinton: $100,000-$125,000, plus expenses for three people and transportation by private jet.
Albright: $50,000-$70,000, plus first-class plane fare.
Barak: $50,000 and first-class fare from Israel for himself and party of two. (Since Barak is scheduled for other appearances in the United States in April, the transportation expenses might be shared.)
Carville: A bargain at $20,000, plus first-class airfare.
So, fees alone for the four speakers range between $220,000 and $265,000, not including airfare. Even doubling this figure, and more, for rental at Universal, transportation, advertising, extensive security, first-class hotel accommodations and dinners, the UJ should end up with a very handsome profit, which Wexler says will go for scholarships.
Not everybody is cheering for the lecture series. Wexler says he has received about 20 messages objecting, some quite forcefully, to the democratic and liberal orientation of the speakers.
Others charged that Clinton and his advisers "have aided and abetted the foes of Israel," in the words of one writer. And one or two notes alluded to Clinton's affair with Monica Lewinsky.
"We have previously received similar messages, from the other side, when we had conservative speakers like [talk show host] Dennis Prager," Wexler says. "We are not honoring or endorsing any speakers, but we will continue to present them as long as they are respectable and we can learn from them."
The lecture series was the brainchild of Gady Levy, the 32-year-old dean of UJ's department of continuing education, whom Wexler credits with reinvigorating and expanding UJ's sizable outreach and extension program.
Close to 10,000 people annually participate in a diversified program of classes, tours, lectures, seminars, forums and special events, mainly held in the evenings and on Sundays.
Levy also launched Yesod ("foundation" in Hebrew), an intensive two-year biblical and Jewish studies program, held in partnership with 10 Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist synagogues.
Now in the works is a videoconferencing program, linking UJ faculty with adult students in Palm Springs and San Jose.
Innovative projects are under way in other parts of the campus. At the Whizin Center for the Jewish Future, director Ron Wolfson is working toward formation of a Jewish Teacher Service Corps, modeled on the Teach for America program.
He hopes to alleviate the shortage of qualified teachers in Jewish day schools and synagogues by enlisting alumni of Birthright Israel and other Israel-centered programs, as well as recent college graduates in Jewish studies, for one- to two-year stints as teachers. (For more on visiting lecturer Mimi Feigelson, see page 52.)
Seminars and workshops for teachers and parents, directed by Risa Munitz-Gruberger, are emphasizing the key role of family education.
The university's performing arts program hosted the world premiere of the full-scale musical "Haven," and Wexler is looking toward edgier projects, such as staging translated Israeli plays and readings of the works of younger Jewish writers.
"We have all this Hollywood talent here, and we want them not just as donors, but as participants," he says.
On the construction front, the current project is the Auerbach Student Center, which will serve as a combination fitness and student union center, with an adjoining Olympic-length swimming pool, soccer field and basketball court.
The UJ does not field any athletic teams, but under consideration is formation of a debating team, which should be a natural at a Jewish liberal arts college.
Visitors -- impressed by the attractive UJ campus, the diversity of its activities, and frequent media attention -- are often startled to learn that only 223 undergraduate and graduate students are enrolled on a regular, year-around basis.
The College of Arts and Sciences teaches 103 undergraduates, well below its earlier peak. The master of business administration program, designed for future administrators of nonprofit organizations, has 36 students. The Fingerhut School of Education, which grants master's degrees in education and behavioral psychology, has 20 students.
The one branch of the academic program that is exceeding enrollment projections and is on the soundest financial footing is the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, with 64 future rabbis enrolled in the five-year study program.
"When we started the Ziegler school in 1996, we thought we'd take 10 new students each year, for a total of 50 at all five levels, because there wouldn't be enough jobs for any more," Wexler says.
But since then, rabbinical job opportunities have greatly expanded beyond the usual congregational pulpits, especially in the fields of education and community service.
"Now even The Jewish Federation has a rabbi in residence," Wexler marvels. "Who would have thought of that 30 years ago, when The Federation barely tolerated its Board of Rabbis."
Plans now call for the annual admission of 20 new students in the rabbinic school, and a total student body of 100.
The UJ also co-sponsors two programs in Israel. A one-year program for high school graduates, conducted jointly with Young Judea, is currently dormant, in light of the intifada and the Sept. 11 attacks. However, a third-year program for rabbinical students, a joint venture with the JTS, remains on course.
Among some Conservative synagogue members, particularly those who have been part of the Conservative movement from childhood on, criticism is being leveled at the UJ and Wexler administration on both philosophical and practical grounds.
"I used to think of the UJ as the center of the Conservative movement on the West Coast, but now the only thing Conservative about it consists of the Ziegler rabbinical school, Camp Ramah and the Introduction to Judaism classes," says Michael Waterman, vice president of finance at Valley Beth Shalom.
As it stands now, "the UJ has marooned the Conservative movement and left it without a focal point," says Waterman, adding, "If the Conservative movement is to survive, it can't be a loose confederation of synagogues, with each rabbi or board of directors making their own rules. There has to be a central authority."
His criticism is reinforced by Jules Porter, a former member of the UJ board of directors and past president of both the university's Patrons Society and Sinai Temple.
"I am disappointed that the UJ has been turned into a generic cultural and community institution, whose ambition seems to be to become the Princeton of the West Coast," Porter says.
Wexler acknowledges these criticisms as a "fair statement," but believes that the critics are nostalgic for a type of institution that never really existed.
The UJ has never aimed to be the flagship of Conservative Judaism or the interpreter of Conservative religious doctrine, Wexler argues. "Our rabbinical school is Conservative. The rest of the university is basically nondenominational."
Doctrinal interpretations lie partially within the purview of the JTS in New York, but mainly with the Rabbinical Assembly, the worldwide association of Conservative rabbis, Wexler says.
"When the Rabbinical Assembly's Committee on Jewish Laws and Standards rules, for instance, that it's OK to drive to the synagogue on Shabbat -- but only to the synagogue -- or that openly homosexual rabbis cannot become members of the Rabbinical Assembly, then Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson [dean of the Ziegler school] has to comply with these rules, regardless of how he feels about them personally," Wexler notes.
A second criticism by Waterman and Porter, more immediate and emotional than philosophical differences, turns on the UJ's past and planned actions in "evicting" other Conservative organizations and school classes from its campus.
The West Coast offices of the United Synagogue, the umbrella organization of Conservative congregations, and the United Synagogue Youth, were asked to find other quarters some time ago.
But what brings the critics' blood to a boil now is the UJ's demand that the Los Angeles Hebrew High School move its Sunday classes off campus.
Currently, the school's seventh- to 12th-graders meet twice a week at seven different synagogue locations, but the 400-500 students study together on Sundays for three and a half hours in 25 UJ classrooms. The UJ space was provided free until last June, when the school was asked to hold its Sunday classes somewhere else. When Hebrew High objected, the UJ asked for $100,000 for a year's extension, says Waterman, an attorney who teaches ethics classes at the school. The parties ultimately agreed on a $50,000 payment, with the matter to be reopened next June.
One result of the friction between some Conservative synagogues -- with VBS in the forefront -- and the UJ, is that VBS has changed the beneficiary of its annual fundraising breakfast. Formerly, all the proceeds went directly to the UJ. Now money is specifically earmarked for the Ziegler rabbinical school, although, Waterman says, the Ziegler school is already well-endowed, while the 54-year-old UJ as a whole is running in the red.
Waterman readily concedes that his criticism of the UJ represents a minority viewpoint among Conservative synagogue leaders.
More typical are the opinions of Elaine Berke, also a VBS member and a past president of The Jewish Federation's Valley Alliance, who serves on the board of UJ's think tank, the Center for Policy Options.
"I wasn't brought up in the Conservative movement, so I don't have a particular ax to grind," she says. "Every institution has to grow up and assume its own identity. It may be a good thing that the UJ has become nondenominational."
Wexler says that the contentious Hebrew High issue simply comes down to a matter of space, and that organizations not part of the UJ have to go to make room for the university's expanding continuing education and cultural programs.
While Wexler regrets any loss of financial support, he notes that the UJ is relying less and less on synagogue donations and more on contributions by individuals.
While he would not cite specific figures on the UJ's financial situation, he observed "We are subject to ups and downs. Like any corporation, in flusher periods we upsize, and in leaner periods we downsize.
"We are holding our breath now to see how the events of Sept. 11 and the downturn in the economy will affect us. We'll know better by the end of the calendar year."
One of the more drastic downturns confronted the UJ in 1997, when, facing a $2 million deficit, the administration terminated the jobs of 14 of its 100 faculty and staff.
Another below-the-surface indicator of fiscal problems has been the "unnaming" of the College of Arts and Sciences. In the 1980s, it became the Lee College, in honor of British philanthropists Norman and Sadie Lee, presumably after a large donation.
Two years ago, the "Lee" name was dropped, following "a confidential understanding with the Lee family," Wexler says.
The university is now looking for a new sponsor, one bearing a hefty endowment. One report -- that if no such philanthropist is found the college may have to close down -- was firmly denied by Wexler, who says that there are "no plans whatsoever" to discontinue the college.
Toward the end of the nearly two-hour interview, Wexler turned toward the future of the 54-year old university"All our programs are directed toward one goal, and that is to make a real impact on the shape and direction of American Judaism," he says. "We are very much a California institution, which means that we will always be innovative, that we will always look forward."