Bruce A. Phillips, Ph.D.
Professor of Sociology & Jewish Communal Service
Zelikow School of Jewish Nonprofit Management
Please tell me about your Jewish journey.
We lived in Los Angeles between a white Jewish neighborhood and a Black neighborhood and we were in the middle area. We joined a Reform synagogue on the West Side, and that was really my Jewish life. We had a wonderful rabbi and an incredible Jewish educator at our temple, Temple Isaiah of Los Angeles. That really got me excited about Jewish learning, and when I was fifteen I went to Israel for the summer on a program that no longer exists, the Los Angeles Bureau of Jewish Education Ulpan, which took teenagers from the Reform and Conservative movements in Los Angeles to Israel for the whole summer to live in Ayanot, a youth village. I was on the very first trip because our rabbi was a very strong Zionist and supporter of Jewish education and he recruited a bunch of kids from our temple, some of whom are still my closest friends.
At Ayanot, Israeli kids attended high school and learned agriculture. We had Hebrew classes and did rotations through all the agricultural projects. It was a cross between a kibbutz and a boarding school. We were there with kids from Yemen, Ethiopia, and India, along with the children of Holocaust survivors. It was really a picture of the multi-racial and multi-ethnic Israel that would emerge in the 1970s. It was a great experience. And this was in 1964, before the Six Day War. Because there were something like ten kids from Temple Isaiah, on one of our tiyulim we got to visit the newly built HUC in Jerusalem and in those days the area behind the college was no man’s land between Israel and the Jordanian controlled Old City. We were warned not to go behind the building because there were Jordanian snipers on the walls of the old city and every so often they liked to fire across no man’s land into West Jerusalem. I now teach an Israel Studies course at USC and try to show films so students can see what Israel looks like and also what it used to look like. I get nostalgic when I show films set in Israel in the 1950s and 1960s because they look like the area around Ayanot, especially the Egged bus stops in the middle of nowhere.
When I came back from the Ulpan I continued studying Hebrew at HUC with Bill Cutter in a special class for the Ulpaniks at Temple Isaiah that our rabbi arranged. Here I was, 16 years old, studying with one of the great teachers of Hebrew poetry. It was the first I had heard of Hebrew Union College. So I’ve been very much a part of Hebrew Union College for a long time. This was really the start of my Jewish journey. I went to Brandeis University so I could take Jewish studies courses, and the school was only about 20 years old at that point. It was a very exciting place to be and there were amazing courses I could take in Jewish studies and sociology, and my professional course was launched there. I had people like Naham Glatzer, Alexander Glatman, and Nahum Sarna as professors in Jewish studies and giants in sociology such as Louis Coser and Morrie Schwartz (of “Tuesdays with Morrie”). I also studied with Marshall Sklare, the dean of American Jewish sociology in whose footsteps I have followed.
What are you currently working on or researching?
I’m finishing a book on interfaith marriage with Arnold Dashefsky incorporating thirty years of combined research, and we’re now waiting to get more data from the newest Pew study. I have another project that I’ve been doing for five or six years interviewing adults who grew up in interfaith marriages through the lens of multiracial studies. I’m looking at identity construction among adult Jewish children of interfaith marriages. My third big project is at the intersection of Jewish Studies and Urban Studies: Jewish inner ring suburbs. These are Jewish suburbs that we’re so familiar with, like Brookline, Newton, Bloomfield Hills, Shaker Heights, Encino, and Pikesville, for example. The other older suburbs around them have gone into economic decline, and experienced white flight. Brooklyn, MN and Ferguson, MO are both inner ring suburbs. In the middle of these declining inner ring suburbs are still very stable and prosperous Jewish inner ring suburbs. And we take them for granted because they’ve been around so long and many of us grew up in these suburbs or live in them now. I’m looking at what this means for understanding these older suburbs not as a site of assimilation (as they have long been understood) but rather as centers of Jewish community. I am also interested in the impact of Jewish inner ring suburbs on the metropolitan areas of which they are a part. Most recently, I have published a book chapter on the legacy of religious pluralism in a book called Religion in Los Angeles: Religious Activism, Innovation, and Diversity in the Global City looking at “The Legacy of Religious Diversity in Southern California.” I also have another chapter under review on Jews of Color in the multicultural west.
How does your research inform your teaching?
I have a new course at HUC on interfaith marriage, which is directly informed by my research. I have a course on intermarriage at USC, which is informed by my research because I took my whole book on intermarriage and turned it into a course.
What is the most rewarding part of working at HUC?
It’s hard to say what’s the most rewarding aspect of working at HUC, but I’ll tell you all the ones tied for first. One of the reasons I came to HUC was because my rabbi, who was very influential in my life, told me when I was in graduate school, you have to go to HUC, because we need a sociological perspective in the training of rabbis, educators, and communal professionals. I was very lucky that I did get a job at HUC and have been there for about forty years now, to be part of shaping the leaders of tomorrow. The students at HUC are wonderful; they’re interesting people who are passionate about what they’re going to do. And being chair of the Faculty Council for the past decade I’ve gotten to know my colleagues across all four campuses, and that’s also been wonderful. I’ve talked to colleagues in my field who work in secular universities and I regularly hear complaints about toxic environments and petty rivalries, but HUC is truly a community–both here in Los Angeles and across all four campuses. Here in Los Angeles a lot of us live near each other and we do often get together socially. There really is this shared commitment to the promise of HUC in creating and sustaining a thriving Jewish life in the American future. The third rewarding thing about HUC for me was serving as the faculty governor on the Board of Governors. As I got to know other members of the Board of Governors, I’ve been impressed by their commitment, creativity, imagination, and their overall love of the College-Institute. I also enjoy my 8-mile bike ride to campus through a variety of historic Los Angeles neighborhoods.
What do you like to do in your free time?
I have a big urban vegetable garden, my wife and I take care of my three-year-old granddaughter one or two days a week, and I play banjo and mandolin. I play in the Temple Emanuel bayit band! I also enjoy bicycling and camping.