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How the West Was Won: The HUC-JIR Story

Dr. Steven Windmueller
Director, Irwin Daniels School of Jewish Communal Service, HUC-JIR/LA

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.When 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.

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 community.

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 grow.

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 building.

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 of expansion

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 to flourish.

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.