First West Coast rabbinical school to open

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LOS ANGELES — The first full-fledged rabbinical school west of the Mississippi will start enrolling students next fall.

A $22 million gift from an anonymous donor to the University of Judaism in Los Angeles will permit the school — which currently offers two years of rabbinical coursework — to provide a four-year ordination program.

The announcement Tuesday was hailed by leading rabbis of all denominations as a major boost to Jewish life and scholarship in the Western United States.

However, at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York, the original parent campus of the West Coast university, the chancellor, Ismar Schorsch, reacted sharply, saying the creation of the new school countered long-standing assurances by the University of Judaism's leaders that no such development was being considered.

The transcontinental feud only slightly dampened enthusiasm on the Los Angeles campus and elsewhere that the unexpected gift would fulfill the dream of ordaining a class of young rabbis attuned to the communal needs of the 1.3 million Jews in the Western United States.

"For many decades, Jews in California have been viewed as a developing Jewish community, a young Jewish community that someday will come of age," said Rabbi Mark Diamond of Conservative Temple Beth Abraham in Oakland. "I think this step now says, `We've come of age.' It's very, very exciting."

Rabbi Lavey Derby, of Conservative Congregation Kol Shofar in Tiburon, agreed but voiced concern about the tensions between the Los Angeles university and JTS.

"It will put a small strain on the Conservative movement on the West Coast," he predicted, since rabbis here "will now be in the position of having to choose on some level between allegiance to the JTS and the University of Judaism."

For that reason, Derby called the news of the university's planned rabbinical school both potentially exciting and divisive. "It would be my hope that the university does everything in its power to smooth over divisions and tensions," he said.

The $22 million — one of the largest gifts ever made to Jewish education in the United States — arrived unsolicited, university leaders said. It will go to the Ruth and Allen Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies on the university campus.

Since its founding 24 years ago, the Ziegler School has offered a two-year preparatory program, with its graduates generally transferring to the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) for additional years of study and ordination as Conservative rabbis. The Conservative movement also runs seminaries in Jerusalem and Buenos Aires.

As the first West Coast seminary to ordain rabbis, the Ziegler School plans a number of innovations.

While studies for ordination generally require five to seven years to complete, the Ziegler School will be in session year-round, and students are expected to graduate in four years.

"A lot of rabbinical recruits are older students, who have to get on with their lives," said Robert Wexler, University of Judaism president. "By offering the same number of semester hours on a year-round schedule, we can shorten the time and gain in the studies' intensity and continuity."

Plans call for students to spend one summer semester studying in Jerusalem.

The school will also offer "a different model of rabbinical education," said Wexler. "We have a much higher rate of unaffiliated Jews, up to 70 percent, in Los Angeles and the West than in older East Coast cities."

The challenge facing University of Judaism rabbinical graduates, he said, "will be to appeal to the unaffiliated, to bring them through the door, and to deal with their intellectual, emotional and spiritual questions in a modern context."

The university's president also hopes that rabbinical students will take advantage of the institution's graduate programs in education and business administration to qualify them for positions with Hillel campus centers, Jewish day schools and federations.

In addition, Wexler sees a critical need for University of Judaism rabbinical graduates to serve the growing Jewish population on the West Coast.

"We now have congregations of 500 to 600 families with only one rabbi, which makes it hard for him to interact with his congregants on a personal level," he said. "We also have to anticipate where new concentrations of Jews will move next."

Currently, 30 students are enrolled in the Ziegler School's two-year program, with a total of 180 students at the university. With next year's expansion, six full-time faculty members will be added to the current four at the Ziegler School, said Rabbi Hanan Alexander, the university's vice president of academic affairs.

The new rabbinical student body will be built slowly, Alexander said, with a goal of 75 to 100 within five years. With added professors, including senior scholars, Alexander added, the university "will have the largest Judaica faculty west of the Mississippi, [and they] will be part of the community and enrich our Jewish lives."

Wexler acknowledged there will be some competition between L.A.'s Ziegler School and New York's JTS rabbinical school for the best students and faculty.

Other University of Judaism officials, meanwhile, were clearly unhappy that the tension with JTS had become public. Dean Daniel Gordis of the Ziegler School, responding for Wexler, did not directly address Schorsch's charge of broken assurances by university leaders but sought to place the issue in an historical perspective.

When the University of Judaism was founded in Los Angeles in 1947, it was an affiliate of JTS. The JTS chancellor served as chancellor of both institutions, a joint jurisdiction that continues, at least pro forma, to this day.

Over the years, the West Coast university sought increasing independence from the New York parent campus, and when longtime University of Judaism president David Lieber retired in 1992, an agreement redefining the relationship between the campuses for the next five years was signed.

Under the terms, the Ziegler School retained its affiliation with JTS, but even that tie will be severed next year, when the Ziegler School goes "independent."

Gordis acknowledged the university did not receive approval from JTS for the new Ziegler School status but said he hoped for a continuing partnership with the New York campus.

He likened the evolving relationship to that of parents and children: "As the child reaches adulthood, it will make its own decisions, which may not always make the parents happy."

Despite potential problems, Diamond said the expanded university bodes well for the future of Conservative Judaism on the West Coast. "It says we're serious about what we're doing, we're proud to be Conservative Jews."

Orthodox Rabbi Abner Weiss of Beth Jacob Congregation in Los Angeles and president of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California wished the new school a hearty mazel tov.

Reform Rabbi Isaiah Zeldin of L.A.'s Stephen S. Wise Temple also applauded the neighboring University of Judaism for its decision, saying that Los Angeles, home to 10 percent of American Jewry, needed such a school.

"Los Angeles, in turn, is the wheel for the preservation of Jewish life in the West, from Denver to Honolulu," he said.