December 23, 2004
About 6,000 people pass through the doors of the University of Judaism (UJ) each year, 13,000 if you include the people who catch its high-profile public lecture series at the Universal Amphitheatre. Significant as that number is, it means tens of thousands of other Los Angeles-area Jews have yet to figure out what that campus just off the 405 in the Sepulveda Pass can do for them.
Peter Lowy wants to change that. The recently named chairman of the board of the institution is that rare bird in nonprofit institutional life: a breath of fresh air.
He is young: at 45, practically a teenager compared to the aging membership of many boards. He isn't from here. Lowy and his wife, Janine, moved to Los Angeles 14 years ago from Sydney, Australia. Not only does that mean Lowy speaks in that chummy, endearing accent, it means he enters his post with a new and expanded perspective.
He is a poster child for the post-denominational Jew. Two of the Lowy's four children attend a Conservative Jewish day school, and two attend a pluralistic high school affiliated with a Reform congregation. Lowy himself attends an Orthodox synagogue, as does the UJ's president, Rabbi Robert Wexler.
"When you consider that the president and chairman are secular but daven in Orthodox shuls while running a Conservative institution, that's where the world's moving," Lowy told me during a talk at his Brentwood office. "That's where the community's moving." Lowy doesn't just walk the walk, he, like so many Jews today, walks many walks.
Finally, he is wealthy and connected. Lowy's father, Frank, fled Europe for Palestine, fought as a Golani commando in the War of Independence, then moved to Australia, where he built shopping centers. Lowy is now managing director of the Westfield Group, a global real estate investment trust (think Century City Shopping Mall, Westside Pavilion, Woodland Hills' Shoppingtown). Someone with the head to run a multifaceted, multibillion dollar international business just might be able to move the University of Judaism and L.A. Jewry forward.
But it won't be easy.
The UJ has been around since 1947. My office window in Koreatown overlooks the block of Ardmore Avenue where it was originally housed. The university followed the Jewish community west in 1979, settling in to the expansive Familian campus, where it fulfills a unique but hardly problem-free niche in a unique Jewish community.
Running a full-fledged undergraduate school -- deans, professors, classes, dorms -- for a limited number of students is a daunting task. Meanwhile, Conservative rabbis have leveled public and private criticisms that the UJ has veered too far from its roots in the Conservative community.
Some critics have taken to task the UJ's department of continuing education for offering courses exploring edgier, controversial topics like homosexuality and astrology. The Orthodox community is still leery of a school whose cafeteria, not to mention its courses, is not kosher enough for them.
Lowy said he wants to build on the work of leaders like Frank Maas and Dena Schecter to stabilize the UJ internally, then enable it to reach out to all parts of the community.
On the first front, Lowy and others on the UJ board saw the importance of bringing business-world models of financial accountability and corporate governance to the nonprofit world. They instituted training programs for Jewish day schools on finance and made sure they took their own advice. Lowy said the school's budget is in the black for the first time in recent memory.
He believes the costly undergraduate school is an asset, one part of a "three-legged stool" that includes the graduate programs and the department of continuing education, which together give the UJ gravitas and reach.
"You couldn't get the quality of programs and lectures without the university underpinning it," Lowy told me. "For instance, how would you get Elliot Dorff to come to a lecture on bioethics if he wasn't part of the institution serving the community?"
His vision is to open the UJ's resources to the community.
"The UJ needs to be viewed as a community institution," he said. "We need to be able to give these benefits to the Orthodox community, the Reform community, the Conservative community and the Reconstructionist community. We need to change the mindset of the community. It's a very difficult job to do."
One way to do it is to offer these various facets of the community services they need. Jewish unity motivates in theory, good programming motivates in fact.
One place where Lowy hopes the UJ can contribute to the wider community is in tackling the problems facing day school education.
"If you look around, we have a growing system that is very good," he said. "But the teachers aren't paid enough, because the schools can't afford to pay them. The schools can't expand, because they're undercapitalized. And the parents are paying too much to send their kids. Those are major issues, but the schools still grow because there is demand."
Along with the nuts-and-bolts seminar for administrators, the Lowys funded a UJ program to help day school teachers get their masters' degrees in Jewish studies. Teachers with advanced degrees earn more, and better quality attracts more parents, which brings in more money.
"Let's make the Jewish day school system the best so people want to go to it, and not just because they believe in Jewish education," he said.
If Lowy succeeds, it will prove a few things. One, that boards should make way for youthful leadership and diversity. Two, that breaking denominational barriers pays off. And three, that megadonors can have a megaimpact on their community.
I hope this last point resonates. The Lowys give more than 90 percent of their personal philanthropic dollars to Jewish causes. (Westfield Corp. supports charities of all types). A study of Jewish megadonors last year found that just 6 percent made their megagifts to Jewish causes and institutions, which often struggle for funding. The Lowy's are a rare exception, and a welcome one.