The Chronicle #60/2002
How the West Was Won: The HUC-JIR Story
Dr. Steven Windmueller
Director, Irwin Daniels School of Jewish Communal Service, HUC-JIR/LA
HUC-JIR/Los Angeles ordained its first class of rabbinical students
on May 5th, it marked a historic moment for the College-Institute
and the Reform Movement. This event reaffirmed an important transition
taking place in Jewish life, the evolving and changing character
of Jewish influence and power in America.
Rabbi David Ellenson and Cantor Don Gurney offer the priestly benediction
upon the ordinees.
As American Jews have developed new institutions and transported
and expanded older ones, i.e. the HUC-JIR/LA campus, they are also
reshaping the constellation of Jewish energy and influence. These
demographic and institutional realities should not only be defined
as part of the "East-West" transition but must be seen
as a fundamental change in the character and shape of Jewish communal
life in North America, where multiple centers of Jewish creativity
and organizational growth have emerged.
Unlike some of the recent points of conflict between some of the
New York "national" Jewish institutional systems and their
Los Angeles "regional" counterparts, the HUC-JIR story
can be understood as a conscious, planned approach in empowering
the Los Angeles campus and, in turn, the West Coast Reform Jewish
The creation of a full rabbinical program on this coast reflects
the cultural realities, and institutional and religious needs of
a different type of constituency. If one understands that "not
all Jewish communities are the same" and that regions within
this country still reflect distinctive patterns of practice, behavior,
and culture, then national organizational systems can thrive and
There has existed for a period of years a battle over where Jewish
authority and power ought to reside. Clearly, New York remains "the
home" to most national Jewish institutions, excepting AIPAC,
B'nai B'rith, and the Jewish War Veterans, all of whom claim Washington
to be their primary base of operations.
But South Florida, the West Coast, and other regions or sectors
of this nation have added significantly to their Jewish population
base. As these areas have increased their financial influence, a
series of "wars" have escalated within American Jewish
institutions over issues involving the control of resources, institutional
policy, and organizational management.
The view that "Jewish communities are different" has
not always resonated with national organizational leaders who, while
often selected from the New York metropolitan area or other established
Eastern and mid-Western centers of Jewish life, tend not to appreciate
or understand the unique characteristics that define sun-belt communities
and the cultures found in some of these new and emerging areas.
Higher non-affiliation patterns and lower per-capita Jewish giving
records are but two of the contributing factors that define these
communities' social and demographic realities. A key factor can
be seen, as well, in the absence in some of these communities of
the depth and breath of peer relationships, so central in forming
and nurturing communal systems of engagement and participation.
Contrastingly, these emerging communities are often the home to
many grassroots, innovative organizational models and are also the
locus where experimentation has become synonymous with institution
There has always been the need for both creating and sustaining
national systems in support of Jewish life. Of some historic interest,
the Jewish community has always sought to emulate the American governmental
system employing the idea of "separation of powers" as
different Jewish entities, for example, were charged with various
aspects of communal responsibility. The shared agendas of the Jewish
people, namely Israel, Jewish education and religious life, public
policy and community relations, were divided amongst institutions
and groupings of organizations, similar to the separation of responsibilities
found in our political system.
Similarly, the "levels of governance" in the Jewish community
can be equated to the geographical divisions found in our federal
system. Local and/or regional tasks assigned to Jewish organizations
can be understood in comparative ways to the public sector's focus
on city and state concerns, while national Jewish policy matters
can be aligned with the federal government's roles and functions.
Therefore, it was only natural for Jewish institutions to create
operational units in the West, along with the expansion of services
elsewhere in the country, using this "federalist" model
of governance and management.
This system however could only work as long as the "citizenry"
accepted the central authority as defined by New York's role as
the "Jewish" capitol. As communities and regional organizational
structures began to express their desire for "self-rule"
or greater autonomy and as resources became increasingly constrained,
the issues of "sovereignty" and even organizational separation
have become more explicit.
In contrast to these ideas about "national" Jewish systems,
the HUC-JIR four-campus model may offer a different perspective.
The significance and success of the HUC-JIR experience can be linked
to three interesting characteristics.
First, Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise, the founder and first president
of the College- Institute and his seven successors, all understood
the idea of institutional transformation. HUC-JIR has always seen
itself as an educational experiment, not fixed in place or time.
This principle has allowed its leadership to create, for instance
the first Israel-based rabbinical program among America's Jewish
seminaries, along with a number of other educational and organizational
initiatives unique to the College-Institute.
Secondly, the College-Institute, unlike most American Jewish institutions,
was not "of New York," as the College was founded in Cincinnati,
one hundred and twenty-seven years ago. HUC would only become a
part of the New York scene following its merger in 1950 with the
then New York-based "Jewish Institute of Religion." This
historic reality presents a significantly different model than any
other American Jewish institution. The New York experience for HUC
can be seen as a part of the College-Institute's continued plan
Third, HUC-JIR established its West Coast presence in 1954, nearly
fifty years ago. From the outset, the College-Institute was seen
as linked to the Reform Jewish community in the Los Angeles area,
and not as a totally new, disconnected academic institution. The
key to HUC-JIR's success, and now its growth in the West, has always
been this extraordinary relationship.
Of particular interest are the significant numbers of Reform rabbis
who today serve Western congregations, who either grew up in this
region and/or who studied at HUC-JIR/LA and now have returned to
this part of the country, creating a unique "home grown"
constituency. Over the years, these men and women have been committed
to promoting the Los Angeles School's case within the national priorities
of the College-Institute. We can extract from this experience that
institutions require such core communities of interest if they are
The ordination of our first West Coast class of Reform rabbis is
truly a historic moment, but this event occurs against the backdrop
of the geographical transformations and institutional issues that
are now defining Jewish life. This occasion allows us to review
the unique factors that have shaped HUC-JIR and, more specifically,
the story of its Los Angeles campus.