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Jewish Journal

Legacy in Motion

Dr. Samuel Dinin, founding father of Los Angeles' Jewish educational system, turns 100.

by Michael Aushenker

January 30, 2003 | 7:00 pm

Dr. Samuel Dinin recently turned 100. Don't recognize the name? Well, if you are a product of Jewish education in Los Angeles, you have been impacted by his contributions.

The study of Dinin's cozy Westwood abode is crammed with shelves of Jewish texts. This is not for show. Dinin played a key role in developing several institutional pillars of Jewish education in this city, including the West Coast's Bureau of Jewish Education (BJE) affiliate, the University of Judaism (UJ) and Camp Ramah. And, by extension, he has nourished many of the city's Jewish minds.

"I'm a direct beneficiary of the work of such people of Dr. Dinin," said current BJE President Dr. Gil Graff. 

Born in 1902 in Zarawitz, Russia, Dinin earned his bachelor's degree at the City College of New York in 1922, and received his master's degree and his doctorate at Columbia University in 1923 and 1933, respectively. Dinin went on to become the registrar and associate professor of education and Jewish history at the Manhattan-based Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS), where he taught for a number of years.

In 1945, when Dinin and his wife, Bessie Bernstein -- who died seven years ago -- came out to California on JTS' behalf, Jewish education in Los Angeles was in its infancy.

"It was a big challenge. I got a three-year leave of absence, but I never went back. My wife and I fell in love with Los Angeles," Dinin said.

Dinin came here on a mission. At that time, the community consisted of less than 200,000 Jews.

"What was the predecessor of The Jewish Federation commissioned a study in the early 1940s on what it should do in terms of the Jewish education," Graff said. "Alexander Dushkin, head of the BJE in New York, came and surveyed Los Angeles to offer what should be done. He recommended that this community needed not just a person keeping tabs on it, but a full-service BJE."

Enter Samuel Dinin.

"The vision was Dr. Mordechai Kaplan's [principal of JTS]," Dinin noted. "He talked about establishing an institution of higher learning. I took his dream and established it in Los Angeles."

And so, Dinin became the first full-time executive director of Los Angeles' BJE, where he remained its leader through 1956.

"When Dinin came to Los Angeles," Graff said, "he was given a budget to hire a staff. Not only did he shape things in terms of the particular people he hired, but he set the framework of what it is for them to do. What Dinin saw in the BJE was a mechanism in training teachers."

During that time, Dinin brought in educators from Chicago "because it was the closest big city." Professor Morris Liebman, who later succeeded Dinin at BJE as director, was one of those Chi-Town educators. Dinin also found Liebman's successor, Irwin Soref.

As Los Angeles' BJE came together, Dinin became involved in what would soon become another juggernaut of Jewish Los Angeles.

"There was a confluence of things going on at the time," Graff said. "The JTS opened the University of Judaism in 1947 as a West Coast affiliate but they didn't have the means to operate it, so they asked Dinin if he would help them maintain this operation."

To establish the UJ, Dinin approached a core group of patrons with deep passion for Jewish continuity, including BJE chairman Peter Kahn and Benjamin Platt, who became the UJ's fine arts gallery's namesake.

"All of them were involved in Jewish education and scholarship," Dinin said. 

The UJ began humbly at an Ardmore Avenue address, before moving to Sunset Boulevard and Wilcox Avenue, and, finally, its current Bel Air locale, on a property the UJ founding fathers purchased from neighbor Rabbi Isaiah Zeldin of Stephen S. Wise Temple. One of Dinin's most important achievements, according to Rabbi Jacob Pressman, Temple Beth Am's rabbi emeritus and a JTS student of Dinin's (1943-1945), was "gaining the acceptance of the University of Judaism by the general community." Pressman also helped Dinin establish Los Angeles Hebrew High School.

The UJ has gone on to flourish with adult education, a school of fine arts and degrees offered in Jewish education and administration in business and Jewish organizations.

As the UJ grew, Dinin was offered the opportunity by the established university in 1957 to join as the college's dean -- a position he occupied through 1963. Dinin continued under the UJ's auspices as its chair of faculties and its vice president until 1974, when he retired to become the college's professor emeritus of education and history. Dinin also edited the Professional Jewish Education journal, and has had numerous articles on Jewish life and Zionism published over the years in various periodicals.

One of the individuals directly influenced by Dinin's work was UJ president emeritus (1963-1992) Dr. David Lieber.

"He's the man responsible for the levels of Jewish education attained here during the 1950s and 1960s," said Lieber, who has admired Dinin since he was his JTS pupil.

"I took a history course with him," Lieber said, "and it was the first time I began to learn what history is all about."

As UJ president, Lieber worked alongside UJ vice president Dinin.

"He's a wonderful human being," Lieber said. "A man of total integrity, very gentle, and kind and brilliant, with a keen analytical mind. He's also an omnivorous reader."

"He was impeccably prepared and eager for his students to learn," recalled Pressman, another Dinin protégé. "At a time when Jewish education was avocation for many, his professional attitude was most persuasive."

Dinin's example shaped the career of Pressman who helped found several of Los Angeles' Jewish institutions, including Pressman Academy and Akiba Academy. From Dinin, Pressman learned that "the educational function was not a stepchild of the rabbinate, but a priority." 

Dinin's passion for Jewish continuity not only inspired educators, but his entire family.

"My siblings and I are all products of public school with secondary Jewish education, so it's pretty impressive how involved we all are [in Jewish life]," said Dinin's granddaughter, Shana Sisk, who noted that her sister, Rachel Sisk, works in Jewish family education. "The reason we stayed so connected is because of the values we've learned from his devoting his life to the Jewish community."

"Even in my early days," continued Sisk, "I remember him walking to and from Sinai Temple on Saturdays. The man was 75 years old when I was born, but he must've continued to walk to shul well into his 80s."

But it is a broader cross section of Jewry, and generations of their descendants, that will truly benefit the most from Dinin's passion.

"Dr. Dinin is among those who shaped the course of Jewish education in Los Angeles, post-World War II," Graff said.

"This community owes a great deal to him for what he's done for Jewish education," Lieber said. "He really professionalized it."

Overall, Dinin feels especially proud to have had a guiding hand with the educational evolution of Jewish Los Angeles.

"Jewishly, we built it up," Dinin said, with a smile.  

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