The Skirball Cultural Center was established in Los Angeles in 1996 to promote Jewish heritage and American democratic ideals. Originally conceived in the 1980s as an offshoot of the Reform movement's Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion, the center was founded by Rabbi Uri D. Herscher (1941– ), then the College-Institute's executive vice president and dean of faculty, who was elected president and chief executive of the center upon its separate incorporation in 1995. Named for one of its early donors, noted philanthropist Jack H. Skirball, the center was designed by Israeli-Canadian architect Moshe Safdie. The campus includes a museum, a performing arts center, conference halls, classrooms, libraries, courtyards, gardens, and a café. In its first decade, the center attracted nearly five million visitors, becoming one of the world's major Jewish cultural institutions.
When Herscher transferred his administrative office to the Los Angeles branch of the College-Institute in 1979, the city was emerging as the second largest Jewish community in the United States and third largest in the world. Yet surveys showed that only one in five Jews belonged to a synagogue or any Jewish organization. The trend toward assimilation was so pervasive that rates of Jewish observance were barely higher among affiliated Jews than among the unaffiliated. Herscher immediately sought to raise the profile of the College-Institute. In 1981, he persuaded its board of governors "to explore the concept of establishing a cultural center to celebrate American Jewish life." The celebratory aspect of the project was crucial to Herscher's concept: American Jewry, the most populous, powerful, and prosperous of all Diaspora communities, had yet to appreciate its own accomplishments and promise; nor had it fully acknowledged its debt of gratitude to the nation whose hospitality and goodwill knew no precedent in Jewish history. While insisting that remembrance of the Holocaust and solidarity with the State of Israel were essential – Herscher himself was born in Tel Aviv, to parents whose families were decimated by the Nazis – he argued that Jewish life in America, if it were to survive, required its own foundation: a renewed acquaintance with ancestral Jewish values and an inclusive vision of American society. He came to envisage the center as a new institutional paradigm distinct from the synagogue or the Jewish community center: a "tent" where Jews and non-Jews alike would be welcome. In Los Angeles, "the Ellis Island of the twenty-first century," he saw the ideal home for such a venture. Inspired by his own formative experience as a 13-year-old immigrant, when the United States accepted him and his family with open arms, he conceived of the center as a way to "return that embrace."
Herscher's project found an early champion in Jack Skirball, a Reform rabbi whose later success as a film producer and real estate investor earned him a considerable fortune. A generous contributor to Hebrew Union College, Skirball under-wrote the relocation of its museum collection from Cincinnati to Los Angeles in 1972. Skirball believed that the museum's Judaica artifacts could function as "storytellers," visual objects that could engage an audience less attuned to purely textual learning. Herscher's vision of a cultural center and Skirball's hopes for the museum coalesced in the notion of a core exhibition in which the artifacts would tell the story of the Jews from their biblical origins to their integration into present-day American life. The center would also present an array of cultural programs: changing exhibitions, concerts, lectures, theater, dance, literary readings, symposia, film, and educational activities for adults and children. This multivalent approach, Herscher and Skirball believed, would have the best hope of attracting those who had abandoned existing Jewish institutions.
Skirball was also instrumental in opening doors to the wider community, introducing Herscher to corporation executive Franklin D. Murphy, a former chancellor of UCLA. Murphy viewed the prospect of a Jewish cultural center as a salutary expression of American democracy: a "stitch in the fabric" of pluralism, strengthening society as a whole. With Murphy's endorsement, Herscher succeeded in garnering major pledges from the Ahmanson, Kress, and Times Mirror Foundations, the Getty Trust, and others. Remarkably for an avowedly Jewish project, nearly one-third of the center's capital funds derived from non-Jewish sources. Another key
Although the College-Institute's board of governors finally approved the project, it was on the daunting condition that Herscher raise the funds independently. Through singular gifts of persuasion and unremitting efforts over 15 years, he succeeded. A 15-acre site, adjoining a major freeway and linking the two centers of Jewish population in West Los Angeles and the San Fernando Valley, was acquired in 1983, and Safdie was engaged as architect the following year. Morris Bergreen, a prominent New York attorney, carried forward the leadership of Jack Skirball, who died in 1985, succeeding him as chairman of the Skirball Foundation. Construction began in 1990, and the center opened six years later. Its board of trustees, consisting of both Jews and non-Jews, was chaired by renowned Los Angeles attorney Howard I. Friedman, a former international president of the American Jewish Committee. It also included Bergreen and Audrey Skirball-Kenis, Skirball's widow.
The core exhibition, titled "Visions and Values: Jewish Life from Antiquity to America," incorporated the museum's artifacts, artworks, documents, photographs, and sound recordings in a sequence of gallery displays and multimedia installations. Predicated on the concept of a journey through history, the exhibition described how Jews adapted to different civilizations, periodically reimagining themselves while retaining their age-old ethics and beliefs. Special emphasis was laid on the consonance of those ethics and beliefs with American democratic principles: Hanukkah and Passover were associated with constitutional commitments to religious liberty and political freedom; Purim with the assertion of minority rights; Sukkot with Thanksgiving; the Hebrew prophets with the founding fathers; the decalogue with the Declaration of Independence. The emblem of the exhibition was a Hanukkah lamp, each of its branches surmounted by a miniature Statue of Liberty.
In its array of public programs, the center sought the same alloy of visions and values, reflected by the institutional collaborations that produced two of its changing exhibitions: "Freud: Conflict and Culture" (2000), organized in conjunction with the Library of Congress and the Getty Trust; and "Einstein" (2004–05), presented jointly by the American Museum of Natural History, the Hebrew University, and the Skirball Cultural Center. Complementing its schedule of exhibitions, the center presented a diverse range of performing arts, lifelong learning classes, and an active program of outreach education to local youth. Designed to acknowledge and engage the multiplicity of cultures represented in Los Angeles, the program grew to accommodate some 50,000 students annually, the vast majority from the public school system.
In the early decades of the 20th century, Horace Kallen suggested that Jewish culture, properly appreciated, constituted a crucial aspect of America's national history and character, with unique potential to revitalize the nation's democratic possibility. His contemporary Mordecai Kaplan argued that in the open society of the United States, the humane values of Jewish civilization were more likely to prevail than the narrow credal and theological claims of past generations. Nearly a century later, the Skirball Cultural Center effectively revived, or perhaps recast, these hopes for an American-Jewish synthesis. Under Herscher's leadership, the center's facilities, programs, and endowment grew rapidly. It broadened its vision as well: in 2000 its mission statement was expanded to address "people of every ethnic and cultural identity." Citing the example of Jonah at Nineveh, Herscher contended that the prophetic ideals of Judaism applied both within and beyond the Jewish community. The center's ultimate goal, he said, was "to take the walls down completely."