Never heard of the AJR, CA? You're not alone. Just six years old, it remains unknown to many in the Jewish community, though its impact is growing rapidly.
Currently housed in the UCLA Hillel building in Westwood, this new alternative-minded trans-denominational rabbinical school began in 2001 as the West Coast branch of the New York-based Academy for Jewish Religion. Within a year, AJR, CA became an independent entity, and since ordaining its first three rabbis in 2003, each year's class has increased. With this year's 11 newly minted rabbis, the school's graduating class has for the first time approached those of the more established seminaries.
Several factors make AJR, CA an attractive option to students interested in joining the rabbinate. First is its trans-denominational approach. Not affiliated with the Orthodox, Conservative, Reform or Reconstructionist movements, AJR's instructors nevertheless hail from all of those backgrounds.
The school was founded to "extract the strength in each [denomination and] to try to build bridges between them," said Rabbi Mel Gottlieb, Dean of the Rabbinical School and Chaplaincy Programs. (The school also has a Cantorial Program).
Gottlieb was ordained as an Orthodox rabbi and has led both Orthodox and Conservative congregations; he said AJR, CA also places a strong emphasis on spirituality, drawing from chassidic, mussar (psycho-ethics) and kabbalistic texts.
Another of the school's strong attractions is its effort to accommodate students who have other professional obligations. Classes meet only three days a week -- Sundays, Mondays and Tuesdays -- which allows students to continue to work and to more easily balance family life with studies. A year in Israel, mandatory at the Reform and Conservative seminaries, is an option, but not a requirement. And while other denominations are seeing greater numbers of students coming to rabbinical school later in life, a whopping 70 percent of those attending AJR, CA's five-year program have already pursued another career.
This year's graduating class includes a psychiatrist, a former entertainment lawyer, a publishing industry executive and a drug and alcohol addiction counselor, as well as Jewish community professionals.
Dr. Bennett Blum, the psychiatrist, became disillusioned with Judaism as a teen. Growing up in Phoenix, he attended a Jewish day school where he "received a good education from really obnoxious people," he said. Blum's family lacked the wealth of the other families, and he was frequently reminded that he didn't belong.
After day school, Blum had little to do with organized Judaism until he enrolled in medical school. There he met a woman raised in an Orthodox home who began to draw him back to Judaism. They have been married 17 years.
Blum went on to specialize in two psychiatric fields that brought him into the legal system -- geriatric (dealing with elders) and forensic (involving crime investigation). He is a nationally sought expert on manipulation and abuse and has provided testimony on the abuse of elders to the Senate Commerce Committee.
Blum developed a tool to assess whether an individual can be considered competent -- to manage his own affairs, for example, or to stand trial -- that is now used both in the United States and abroad. He testified to the United Nation's International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia regarding the competence of accused war criminal General Pavle Strugar.
Blum's Jewish journey was propelled when he was asked by the U.S. Attorney's office to testify in a case involving a rabbi accused of molestation. The rabbi claimed his background and Torah training meant he couldn't have committed the act. Blum was asked to refute the argument with Jewish sources.
"I was paid to relearn Talmud," said Blum, who poured through ancient and modern rabbinic rulings. "It re-sparked my interest."
Blum was living in Los Angeles at the time, and took some classes at the University of Judaism (now American Jewish University), which further whetted his appetite. He even applied to the rabbinical school there, but was not able to attend full-time.
When he returned to Arizona, Blum assumed he would have to give up the idea of enrolling in rabbinical school. But his rabbi told him about AJR, which accommodates part-time attendance.
Blum enrolled and commuted from Phoenix to class each week, where students "were studying and asking deep and profound questions."
Now he is bringing religious wisdom to his secular world. He has published a paper describing ancient rabbinic views on deceptive and manipulative practices, which has been presented to the legal community "as food for thought in elder abuse cases." The paper has been so well received that attorneys, social service personnel and others throughout the country are "using Talmudic perspective for formulating their arguments," Blum said.
And applying secular knowledge to the Jewish community, Blum plans to create a training program to help Jewish professionals recognize and deal with issues relating to elder abuse. He would like to see a specialized group established to serve as a resource to clergy.
For Julia Watts Belser, who was not born Jewish, the path to ordination began in her teens. Although she was brought up without any religious observance, she craved a spiritual life and began exploring Judaism as a teenager. She later enrolled in a Unitarian Universalist seminary, in part because it was "open to people of all faith traditions."
By the time she graduated, Watts Belser, who had already undergone Renewal and Conservative conversions, knew she wanted to go to rabbinical school.
"I had fallen in love with Judaism as an intellectual tradition and as a place of my life's work," she said. "I wanted to teach the tradition and bring my creativity and sense of social justice into my work."She was attracted to the multi-denominational focus at AJR, CA because, as she put it, "I found a lot to love about each of [the denominations] but didn't fit into any of them."
While enrolled at AJR, Watts Belser began a joint doctoral program at UC Berkeley and the Graduate Theological Union. She pursued both programs simultaneously, undaunted by the weekly flights from Berkeley to Los Angeles and the fact that she has been in a wheel chair for the past decade due to cerebral palsy. She also completed a rabbinic internship in Germany, where there are only a handful of female rabbis.
This fall, Watts Belser will begin teaching in the Religious Studies department at UC Davis. She will also serve as retreat director for Nehirim, a spiritual initiative for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Jews.
Academy leaders were initially concerned about whether their graduates would find jobs. However, rabbinical school dean Gottlieb said that 90 percent of alumni have found positions within the Jewish community. This year's graduates will serve in institutions including Sinai-Akiba Academy, Jewish Home for the Aging, Temple Beth Hillel in Valley Village and Kehillat Israel in Pacific Palisades. The school is in the process of obtaining accreditation from the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC), which should further enhance its stature.
Rabbi Stan Levy, co-founder and president of AJR, CA, sees the Academy's trans-denominational, spirituality-infused approach as a way to expand Judaism's reach. Using a business analogy, Levy noted that if 75 percent of Jews are unaffiliated, that means organized Judaism "is only servicing 25 percent" of the market. "We need to package and market it in a more appealing way," he said, "and AJR is in a position to do that."