Competing Visions and the Formation of the University of Judaism, Circa 1945-1952

Erik Greenberg (UCLA)

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This paper will examine the way in which representatives of the Conservative movement based in New York’s Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) and prominent Los Angeles Jews established the University of Judaism (UJ), circa 1947-1952. In particular I will focus on the competing institutional visions of Seminary leaders and Jewish Angelenos, demonstrating that the founding of the UJ was a process of negotiation between these two groups. JTS officials viewed the UJ as an opportunity to establish a beachhead for Conservative Judaism in the American West, while Los Angeles supporters of the UJ envisioned the school as a critical step in the unification of LA Jewry and the development of the city as an important center of Jewish life, one that would someday rival or even surpass New York City.

The original founding vision of the UJ was first articulated by Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, renowned member of the Conservative movement, Dean of the Jewish Theological Seminary’s Teachers Institute, and the intellectual inspiration for Reconstructionism. Kaplan suggested the creation of a University of Judaism in 1945, at the thirty-fifth anniversary of the Seminary’s Teachers Institute. In his speech, Kaplan called for an institute that could train a generation of Jewish leaders to address the needs of the modern American Jew.

Kaplan’s vision of the University of Judaism, no doubt emerged from his belief in Reconstructionism, a unique religious philosophy first articulated by Kaplan and other JTS scholars in the first half of the 20th century. Reconstructionism argued that emancipation and the social and religious freedoms of America and the West were, in essence, the greatest challenges to the existence of Jewish life in the long history of Jews. In 1924, for example, Kaplan lamented that as emancipated Jews, “We rejoice that we are no longer segregated from the rest of the world. But we have not yet learned how to prevent social contact and intercourse with the non-Jewish population from effacing our Jewish individuality.”[1] In order to address the corrosive effects of assimilation, Kaplan argued, Jewish leaders and scholars would literally need to reconstruct the Jew through a thoughtful and searching engagement with modernity, while concomitantly recognizing the Judaism was not merely a series of religious rituals cut off from daily existence, but rather an integrated religious experience. Judaism, Kaplan wrote, is a Civilization, “a cultural and spiritual complex of language, literature, history customs, and social institutions organized around a conception of God.”[2]

Kaplan recognized that the task of creating a reconstructed Jew required an educational institution that went beyond the work of the Jewish Theological Seminary. The Seminary trained the rabbinate, but for Kaplan's goals an institution was needed to train a broader circle. He envisioned a metamorphosis of the Seminary from a rabbinic training program to an institute that examined all of the major University disciplines from a Jewish perspective. His University of Judaism would train future Jewish leaders in a host of fields, including science, business, art, drama, sociology, and education just to name a few. No mere Yeshiva could attain such an ambitious goal. Kaplan’s UJ, then, would represent something entirely new in Jewish education, an institution dedicated to the finest aspects of the Western intellectual tradition while still inculcating its students with a love of Jewish values and traditions.[3]

Though Kaplan may have envisioned the University of Judaism as a metamorphosed Jewish Theological Seminary, the institution’s leaders had other ideas. The Conservative Movement, under the auspices of the JTS leadership, saw in Kaplan’s vision an opportunity to expand the movement’s influence. In 1945 Conservatism had approximately 250,000 followers mostly centered around the East Coast, specifically New York City. In order to broaden their reach, the JTS leadership had, for some time, discussed the idea of a campus outside of New York. The creation of a second campus became the “special project” of Seminary Provost Simon Greenberg. Greenberg was a recent hire at the time of Kaplan’s call for a UJ, and so the new campus would not be named for the seminary. Instead it would bear the name of Kaplan’s visionary institution, the University of Judaism. This despite the fact the JTS was not particularly interested in fulfilling Kaplan’s educational vision.[4]

The JTS originally examined two possible sites for their new project, Montreal and San Francisco, but eventually the lure of Los Angeles’ rapidly growing Jewish community proved too great, and the Seminary set out to create a University of Judaism in the City of Angels.[5] Los Angeles had experienced a major population boom in the years immediately following World War II. In the late 1940s, it received approximately 16,000 new residents a month, and for part of those years, Jews formed approximately one eighth of total immigration to the region. Postwar migration and natural increase led to a significant boom in LA’s Jewish population. From 1946 to 1951 it nearly doubled from 168,000 to 315,000.[6] This demographic shift led one prominent Jewish Angeleno, Pete Kahn, to predict the city’s ascendancy as a global cultural center, asserting that:

Today, California’s position parallels New York’s at the end of the last century. Even as that community grew by leaps and bounds with the great influx of European immigrants to the East Coast, creating what might be called the “Atlantic Era,” so Los Angeles has grown and is still growing and we who are here can watch the beginning of a “Pacific Era.”[7]

Los Angeles’ inevitable rise to prominence would naturally lead to an increase in the importance of its Jewish community. Kahn and many other Jewish Angelenos feared, though, that the Jews of Los Angeles were, intellectually (or perhaps “Jewishly”) speaking, woefully unprepared for this rise in prominence of a West Coast Jewish community.

Kahn, a non-religious but very knowledgeable Jew well read in Jewish texts, was the Chairman of Los Angeles’ Bureau of Jewish Education (BJE) and was intimately involved in the restructuring of the institution in the 1940s. As part of that effort Kahn looked to America’s traditional Jewish center in New York to help him address perceived deficiencies in LA’s system of Jewish education. In 1944 he approached the leadership of the JTS, hoping to hire a new head of the Los Angeles BJE. The seminary assisted him in the hiring of Samuel Dinin, a professor of education and the Registrar at its Teachers’ Institute in New York.

Kahn’s decision to seek a Jewish educator from New York to head the BJE reflected a longstanding, and to some extent an ongoing, sense of inferiority among the Jews of Los Angeles towards their coreligionists in New York. This sentiment may best be summed up by Moshe Davis, former registrar of the Seminary and one of the earliest JTS officials to come to Los Angeles and assist in the formation of the UJ. In a 1985 interview Davis said of 1940s LA that it was a:

Pioneer settlement, really pioneer—Jewishly undertrained, slight in structure, with no traditional congregational form, but growing with such rapidity that something had to be done—a problem altogether different from anything which had been taking place in any other region of the United States.[8]

Davis’ assessment reveals a fairly widespread sentiment among longtime Jewish Angelenos and recent New York transplants in mid-twentieth-century LA. Los Angeles, they believed, was a Jewish tabula rasa, a place devoid of serious Jewish institutions, Jewish thought, or Jewish learning. This despite the fact that by the 1930s the City of Angels already possessed a vibrant Jewish community, including several major Reform temples west of downtown and an established collection of Orthodox synagogues and labor-Zionist folkschules centered around the traditional Jewish community of Boyle Heights. Such institutions were taken for granted even by locals. And in 1946, when the JTS considered opening their University of Judaism in Los Angeles an enthusiastic Pete Kahn came to Seminary President Louis Finklestein and said “we need you to come out. We need the Seminary—otherwise nothing will happen.”[9]

It is not at all clear what Pete Kahn expected to happen when the JTS came to Los Angeles. But they did indeed come. Despite some apocryphal claims that Kahn and Kahn alone opened LA to the JTS, it is clear that Seminary officials had placed advance men in the city throughout the 1940s. Samuel Dinin, had, of course, come to LA in 1945 at Kahn’s request, where he served as Executive Director of Los Angeles’ Bureau of Jewish Education. In 1946 Seminary graduate Rabbi Jacob Pressman joined the staff of LA’s Sinai Temple. And in 1949 Louis Finklestein sent a man named Harry Friedgut to Los Angeles, to be the titular head of the West Coast branch of all three of the Conservative movement’s institutions—The United Synagogue (that is, the organizational institution of Conservative Synagogues), the Rabbinic Assembly (the association of Conservative Rabbis) and the Jewish Theological Seminary (the teaching arm of the Conservative Movement). According to Rabbi Jacob Pressman, Friedgut’s job was to serve as an outpost of Conservative Judaism in the far West, and to seek opportunities for the movement’s expansion, especially in Los Angeles.[10]

Despite Friedgut’s rather expansive position, the first major project of the Conservative Movement in Los Angeles was the formation of the University of Judaism. As previously noted this move was enthusiastically supported by Pete Kahn, a prominent member of LA’s Jewish community. But Kahn was just one of a number of longtime Jewish residents in the City of Angels who assisted the JTS in their work. Businessmen such as Charles Brown and Benjamin Platt as well as renowned film producer Dore Schary joined forces with recent JTS transplants such as Pressman and Dinin to create a University of Judaism. In so doing, these men seemed committed to brining to life Mordecai Kaplan’s vision of the University, a broad based multi-disciplined institution dedicated to the finest aspects of the Western intellectual tradition while still inculcating its students with a love of Jewish values and traditions. At the very least these men seemed committed to making the UJ a learning center for Jews of all denominations and not just a West Coast branch of the Jewish Theological Seminary. The Seminary, however, had other plans.

In 1947, the leadership of the JTS began, in earnest to create a Conservative presence on the West Coast through the institution of a University of Judaism. Their first move, ironically with the assistance of Dinin and Kahn, was to take control of teacher training for the Bureau of Jewish Education. This would undoubtedly grant the movement influence among those schools which received BJE funding and hired BJE credentialed teachers. Control of teacher training was so important to the JTS that it superseded even the creation of a university campus. In the Spring of 1947, Finklestein, addressing a failed attempt to obtain a property to house the nascent University, wrote to Pete Kahn, stating that Kahn should continue with the Seminary’s plans to open the School of Education by the Fall, asserting that:

[T]his should not prevent us from going ahead with our plans at least for a Teachers Institute and I am writing both Mr. Platt and Doctor Dinin to say that I would like to see the Teachers Institute open this Autumn with two members of our Faculty coming out to teach as well as Doctor Dinin and others from Los Angeles on the faculty.[11]

This statement from Finklestein makes clear two important points, first the Seminary’s ability to call on Los Angeles locals to implement its plan, and second that the control of teacher training was so important to the JTS that it would send its own people from New York to assist in the process.

To be sure, the Bureau of Jewish Education’s transfer of teacher training to the University of Judaism appeared to be a power grab on the part of the Conservative movement, and upon even closer inspection this assertion bears significant merit. In October of 1947, Seminary President Louis Finklestein wrote to Kahn that:

At long last it appears that our plans for Los Angeles are taking form. Doctor Greenberg’s conversation with Doctor Dinin indicates we can now take over the teacher’s courses in Los Angeles and establish a Teachers Institute and a College of Jewish Studies.[12]

But despite this somewhat audacious move by the JTS, local supporters of the University of Judaism tried their best to avoid denominationalism in the new institution.

Longtime Jewish Angelenos as well as recent JTS transplants were far less concerned with extending the influence of the Conservative movement than they were with uniting the Jews of LA through the formation of a major educational institution. In a 1947 meeting of the UJ Board of Governors, a somewhat overly optimistic Kahn stated, “In seeking to establish a West Coast University of Judaism, the Seminary was desirous of being of service to the entire Jewish community and not merely to the Conservative congregations.”[13]

Whether or not Kahn believed the Seminary’s claims, he still viewed the School of Education as a unifying force in Jewish LA. His commitment to the entire Jewish community, from secular Yiddishists to the rabbinical leadership of the Jewish Theological Seminary compelled him to try and assuage the concerns of Reform and Orthodox dissenters within the community. In fact in 1950, Kahn took part in discussions aimed at merging the Reform movement’s College of Jewish Studies with the UJ. The talks failed to produce an accord; nevertheless, Kahn did attempt to steer the University towards a unifying role within LA’s Jewish community.[14]

Samuel Dinin viewed the UJ as a unifying, non-denominational entity as well. Dinin’s first work in Jewish institutional life occurred in New York’s Kehilla movement of the 1930s. Kehilla attempted to create a unified, non-denominational, institutional base within New York City’s large Jewish community. In addition, as with many members of the Seminary’s Teachers Institute, Dinin was a Reconstructionist. Dinin, helped Mordecai Kaplan form the movement in the 1930s and 1940s, serving on the editorial board of, and contributing articles to The Reconstructionist, the official organ of Reconstructionist thought. And so Dinin was far more concerned with advancing the Kaplanian vision of an educational institution which could reconstruct and reeducate American Jews than he was with traditional concerns over denominational competition. [15]

The School of Education’s 1948 registration information appears to reflect Kahn’s and Dinin’s desire to create a training program that served all forms of Jewish practice and observance. In March 1948, School of Education Registrar, Rabbi Jacob Pressman’s, enrollment figures demonstrated a variety of student backgrounds. The student body included pupils from the Valley Jewish Community Center, the American Sephardic League, the Farband Labor Zionists, and even the Orthodox, Menorah Center.[16] Kahn and others believed, however, that though the UJ could unite LA Jewry, without an actual campus, an identifiable physical space belonging solely to the University, the school could not fulfill its potential as a unifying entity.

The University of Judaism first began classes in the Fall of 1947 in borrowed space from Sinai Temple and the Jewish Community Council. To many of the University’s Los Angeles benefactors this arrangement was unacceptable. In the Spring of 1948 Pete Kahn he wrote a letter to Louis Finklestein, in which he expressed the West Coast leadership’s frustration over the lack of a permanent site:

We all feel, that this is the most important problem facing us…We need an address and offices for the University, a home for our visiting professors, and a place for some of our classes and library. The acquisition of a building would in a sense crystallize the problems and needs of our University and give concreteness and a rallying centre [sic] to our project which would have tremendous value for the laymen we want to attract to our project as well as for the Jewish community as a whole.[17]

Kahn’s letter was cosigned by the members of the UJ’s “inner committee,” a collection of prominent local UJ supporters. Kahn’s plea to the JTS encapsulated the sense of rootlessness and yearning felt by the University’s LA leadership. The men of the inner committee wanted to create an institution that would serve as a focal point of Jewish life in the City of Angels. For local Angelenos that center could not remain an intangible concept. It required “concreteness,” a palpable, geographic location that Jewish Angelenos could identify as an educational and cultural core in Los Angeles’ urban sprawl. Kahn’s entreaty resulted in a fairly non-committal response, but that same year, Ben Platt would convince a visiting member of the Seminary’s Board of Overseers to purchase a site on Ardmore Avenue.[18] In 1949, Peter Kahn would once again write to Finklestein asking to purchase an additional site to accommodate the growing University, but the JTS would not agree to purchase another space until the mid 1950s when they acquired the former Hollywood Athletic Club on Sunset Boulevard.[19]

And so the creation of the University of Judaism in Los Angeles represented different things for different people. To the leadership of the Jewish Theological Seminary the UJ institution represented an opportunity to expand their reach into the rapidly growing Jewish population of Southern California. Their desire to accomplish this goal resulted in their control of teacher training at the Bureau of Jewish Education and likely contributed to failed negotiations with the Reform movement in 1950, thus leading to the creation of Reform’s College of Jewish Studies, which eventually became the West Coast Campus of Hebrew Union College. For prominent Jewish Angelenos the creation of the University of Judaism represented an opportunity to create a physical center of Jewish life and learning, a non-denominational, unifying institution, which would help prepare LA’s Jewish community for its rise to prominence in a new “Pacific era.”

This examination of the competing visions of the formation of the University of Judaism naturally begs the question, “which vision won?” Did the JTS succeed in expanding their influence into the American West, or did Jewish Angelenos create the unifying center they hoped for. Institutions change over time, of course. To be sure, in the 1940s and 1950s one could reasonably argue the JTS leadership, with its control of BJE teacher training, and its unwillingness to unite with the Reform Movement, had begun to create their vision of the University of Judaism. And one need only look at the fragmentation of today’s LA Jewish community to conclude that despite their best intentions, the local boosters of the UJ in the 1940s did not create the unifying institution they had hoped for. But a closer inspection of the current UJ may suggest that a more long term and creative vision of the institution won out, that of Mordecai Kaplan.

As you will recall Kaplan hoped to create a University that would unite the Western intellectual tradition with Jewish values. Today’s UJ with its excellent graduate programs in non-profit management and Jewish education, as well as its groundbreaking work in bioethics, seems much closer to that Kaplanian vision, than it does to the dreams of the mid century JTS leadership or the University’s local boosters. Further, the UJ’s exhaustive catalogue of extension classes, which includes a vast array of topics from the study of Yiddish and Hebrew language and literature, to courses in Israel studies and other topics of Jewish significance, also seem in keeping with Kaplan’s ideas of a UJ.

To be sure, the UJ is not a perfect expression of Kaplanian Reconstructionism. The institution continues to house the West Coast branches of all of the Conservative movement’s major institutions, including a seminary, a Mikveh, and the offices of the Rabbinic Assembly, as well as the movement’s Summer youth camp. Still, the UJ’s recent merger with the Brandeis Bardin Institute, an educational institution committed to Jewish learning through experiential techniques, such as drama and music, seems to suggest that the American Jewish University (the UJ’s current name) continues to address Kaplan’s desire to reconstruct the American Jew through a thorough engagement with modernity and Jewish values. Only time will tell if UJ officials continue to advance Kaplan’s vision, or if they will return to an earlier, more denominational vision of the institution.


[1] Mordecai Kaplan, A New Approach to the Problem of Judaism (New York: The Society for the Advancement of Judaism, 1924; reprinted as, A New Approach to Jewish Life, (Bridgeport: Hartmore House, 1973), 20 (page citations are to the reprint edition).

[2] Kaplan, A New Approach to the Problem of Judaism, 20.

[3] Mordecai Kaplan, From Strength to Strength: A Proposal for a University of Judaism (New York: The Jewish Theological Seminary of America, 1945), 5;

[4] Moshe Davis, “Oral History with Arthur Hoffnung” in the introduction to, Arthur Hoffnung The University of Judaism at Forty—A Historical Memoir, (Los Angeles: The University of Judaism, 1991),

[5] Davis to Hoffnung, xi-xvi.

[6] Voorspan and Lloyd P. Gartner, History of the Jews of Los Angeles, (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society of America, 1970).

[7] Peter M. Kahn, quoted in Deborah Dash Moore, To The Golden Cities: Pursuing the American Jewish Dream in Miami and L.A.,(Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1994), 62.

[8] Davis to Hoffnung, xiii.

[9] Davis to Hoffnung, xii-xiii.

[10] Recorded interview with Rabbi Jacob Pressman, Fall 2005, recording in possession of author.

[11] Louis Finklestein, “Letter to Peter M. Kahn,” 14 May 1947, Ratner, Record Group 4, Box 1, Folder 35 (University of Judaism/ Peter M. Kahn Files).

[12] Louis Finklestein, “Letter to Peter M. Kahn,” 21 October 1947, Ratner, Record Group 4 , Box 1, Folder 35 (University of Judaism/ Peter M. Kahn Files).

[13] Peter M. Kahn, quoted in Hoffnung, 23.

[14] Peter M. Kahn, “Letter to Simon Greenberg,” 22 September 1950. Ratner, Record Group 4 , Box 1, Folder 35 (University of Judaism/ Peter M. Kahn Files).

[15] Recorded interview with Samuel Dinin, Summer 2003, in possession of author.

[16] Rabbi Jacob Pressman, “Interim Report on Registration at the University of Judaism,” 22 March 1948, Ratner, RG 4 Box 2 Folder 14 (University of Judaism/Jacob Pressman Files); Hoffnung, 16.

[17] Peter M. Kahn, “Letter to Louis Finklestein,” 2 April 1948, Ratner, Record Group 4 , Box 1, Folder 35 (University of Judaism/ Peter M. Kahn Files).

[18] Peter M. Kahn, “Letter to Louis Finklestein,” 2 April 1948; Hoffnung 25-26.

[19] Peter M. Kahn, “Letter to Louis Finklestein,” 2 April 1948; Hoffnung, 35.