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Conservative Judaism: The University of Judaism

The University of Judaism was founded in 1947 in Los Angeles, California, based on the vision of Dr. Mordecai Kaplan who called for an institution that would further Jewish education by advancing the thought and culture of "Jewish Civilization." In his article, "A University of Judaism – A Compelling Need ," he outlined the basic elements of his proposed university. He called for a rabbinical school, a school of education, a school of the arts, a research institute, a school of democracy, and a junior college. His paper also called for a school of social service to train Jews, already committed to social work, to view their occupation through the lens of Jewish culture.

In writing his article, Kaplan did not intend to create a west coast institution. Rather, he hoped to convince his alma mater, the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) to refashion itself in the image he proposed. However, JTS used his blueprint to create a west coast outpost for itself in cooperation with the Los Angeles Bureau of Jewish Education. Initially, an attempt was made to include the leadership of the Orthodox and Reform communities in this effort, but this effort was unsuccessful. Shortly afterward, the Hebrew Union College opened its own branch school, and some years later, Yeshivah University followed suit.

From the very beginning, the University of Judaism had a dual constituency. As the west coast branch of the Jewish Theological Seminary, it had links to the various arms of the Conservative movement, and much of its professional leadership was drawn from the ranks of JTS graduates. At the same time, Kaplan's vision impelled the university to offer broad-based programs geared toward the entire Jewish community. So although the professional leadership was decidedly Conservative, the programs themselves were nondenominational in character and often emphasized the cultural aspects of Jewish life.

The community leadership for the UJ was initially drawn from the entertainment community. The first two chairmen of the UJ's board of directors were writer-producer, Dore Schary, followed by Milton Sperling. The UJ's first president was Dr. Simon Greenberg who also served as vice chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary.

Although the university did not implement all aspects of Kaplan's vision, many of its programs reflected the realization of his plan. In the 1950s and 1960s the University of Judaism served primarily as a Hebrew teachers college that also provided adult education courses for the community. David Lieber followed Greenberg as UJ's president in 1963 and began a 29-year tenure. During these early years the university relied almost entirely on part-time faculty and full-time administrators who also taught. Nevertheless, the UJ was able to attract prominent guest faculty including Martin Buber , Abraham Joshua Heschel , Leo Strauss , and Mordecai Kaplan.

Much of Lieber's presidency was marked by a partnership forged with his vice president, Dr. Max Vorspan. While Lieber occupied himself with the academic side of the institution, Vorspan, a devoted Kaplanite, emphasized the growing adult education and cultural programs. Under Vorspan's direction, the UJ launched the first Jewish Elderhostel program in the United States. And although Vorspan retired in 1993, by 2005 the UJ had the largest and most comprehensive Jewish adult education program outside of Israel. In 1956, the UJ also established Camp Ramah in Ojai, California, which still serves both as a summer camp for children and as a retreat center for the UJ.

In the first few years of its existence, the UJ held classes at the site of Sinai Temple in downtown Los Angeles. Later the UJ moved to the former site of the Hollywood Athletic Club where it remained until moving in 1977 to its present 27-acre campus in the suburb of Bel Air.

In 1973 the University of Judaism took its first steps toward independence from JTS when its board of directors, under Jack M. Ostrow, assumed full responsibility for the financial welfare of the institution. The UJ board of directors undertook to finance and build the new Bel Air campus, which was finally completed in the mid-1980s.

During David Lieber's administration, the first full-time faculty members were hired including Bible scholar Ziony Zevit, philosopher Elliot Dorff, educator Ron Wolfson, and historian Steven Lowenstein. Lieber also established a two-year pre-rabbinic program, the Fingerhut School of Education, a graduate school of nonprofit management, and an undergraduate college. At the same time, Vorspan continued to focus on community education and culture by creating programs in the plastic arts, dance, music and theater. His part-time faculty included dancer Bella Lewitsky, actor Benjamin Zemach, and sculptor Max Finkelstein.

With the establishment of its undergraduate College of Arts and Sciences in 1982, the UJ made the transition from Hebrew college to a small university. Since the undergraduate program included majors in areas such as political science, psychology, bio-ethics (pre-medical), and literature, the institution began to hire its first faculty members in scholarly areas outside of Jewish studies. The UJ underwent an academic reclassification, such that it became recognized as an independent liberal arts institution rather than as a type of religious seminary.

In 1991, David Lieber announced his intention to retire from the presidency. Although the University of Judaism had already been functionally independent from the Jewish Theological Seminary for almost 20 years, it was felt that the time had come to transform a de facto relationship into a de jure one. Lieber negotiated an official separation agreement before stepping down as president in fall 1992.

Lieber was succeeded by Robert Wexler. Wexler had been a member of the UJ faculty and staff since 1978 and was himself a graduate of the University of Judaism having attended there from 1969 to 1973. Although Wexler received his rabbinical ordination at JTS, he also had personal connections to the Reform and Orthodox movements and was an ardent Zionist. These facts shaped his approach to the future growth of the university.

Almost immediately, Wexler began to guide the UJ toward a nondenominational status that he believed to be consistent with the initial vision of Mordecai Kaplan. This realignment meant that the UJ would no longer be formally identified as an institution of the Conservative movement. The new chairman of the UJ board, Francis Maas encouraged Wexler's efforts.

During the 1990s and early 2000s, the University greater improved its financial position. After many years of deficits, the operating budget was brought into balance. Additionally, the UJ's endowment, which stood at $5 million in 1992, grew to more than $50 million by the end of 2005. The university also undertook to expand its facility by adding a student union and conference center; in 2006, it began construction on its new Ostrow Library.

In 1995, the UJ opened the first American rabbinical school in the western United States, the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies. Despite the UJ's nondenominational status within the Jewish community, it was felt that an American rabbinical school should be affiliated with a specific religious movement, and it was determined that the Ziegler School would become an official constituent of the Conservative Movement.

The university continued to expand with the establishment of the Ziering Institute which examines the ethical and religious implications of the Holocaust. A Center for Israel Studies was also created with the purpose of increasing the knowledge of Israeli history, politics, culture, and society among American Jews.

Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.