50 Years of Partnership: USC and Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion

September 12, 2022

President Carol L. Folt

University of Southern California

Welcome, everyone! It is my honor to be with you today as we commemorate and celebrate the 50th anniversary of the partnership between USC and Hebrew Union College.

In March of this year, we signed a new partnership agreement for our next 25 years.

When this historic partnership began, USC had only one faculty member teaching Hebrew language and Jewish studies courses to USC students.

Today, we jointly offer one of the nation’s strongest Judaic studies programs, and USC has one of the largest Jewish student bodies in the country with 2,000 Jewish undergrad students and 1,500 Jewish grad students.

Our alliance now includes eight academic programs:

  • Four dual master’s degrees with the Zelikow School of Jewish Nonprofit Management;
  • A dual-degree program in Jewish & secular education with the Rhea Hirsch School of Education;
  • And an undergraduate major and two minors with Dornsife College and the Louchheim School for Judaic Studies.

Between our two campuses, there are more than 45 Jewish studies classes—not including Hebrew language classes—that range from small seminars with eight students to large lectures with over 100 students, taught at USC by HUC faculty.

These class offerings enroll more than 650 USC undergrads every year and engage with faculty and students of departments, schools, and programs across USC. I’d like to share a few great examples:

  • A Jewish music class at our Thornton School of Music;
  • First-year seminars on Jewish languages, Israeli and Palestinian poetry, the city of Jerusalem, and Holocaust representations;
  • Large history classes examining the German-Jewish experience, the Holocaust and Resistance, and the city of Jerusalem;
  • And there are more than 700,000 volumes at HUC Libraries – available to students on both our campuses. It’s the second largest Jewish library in the world.

Our partnership was first formalized in 1965, and was later applauded by USC President Steven B. Sample, as “a wonderful academic reciprocity agreement…that has led to a broadening of both institutions’ missions and involvement with the larger community.”

It took from 1965 to 1971 for HUC to complete its move from Hollywood to University Park. And the partnership was officially launched with the opening of the new Jack H. Skirball campus building in 1971.

Just a year later, in 1972, 11 members of the Israeli Olympic team were murdered by terrorists at the Olympic games.

As we commemorate and celebrate this partnership here today, we also must remember our history and our responsibility to teach every generation about the events of the past and fight for a better future. As I stand here now, I can’t help but imagine all that will have taken place when future dignitaries meet to celebrate this day in the future.

If I am ever quoted as the USC president present at this historic anniversary, I would like to say – “It is an honor to be here today to celebrate the great vision that led to this partnership, the work of so many who have contributed to it over the years, our shared history, and our continued responsibility to educate future generations in Jewish studies and to build a better and more just future.”

Before we begin our discussion, I’d like to thank:

  • President Rehfeld – you honor us with your presence;
  • Members of the HUC Board, faculty, staff, and community, including members of the Louchheim and Zelikow families;
  • Two USC Trustees who are with us today: Stanley Gold and Kathy Leventhal, who have both been wonderful sounding boards on our efforts to support Jewish life on campus; 
  • And I’d like to thank Dean Varun Soni and the members of the President’s Advisory Committee on Jewish Life, who have been working for eight months – since January this year – to advise me and USC on how to strengthen our support for our USC Jewish community.

Their final report is done, I accepted their recommendations, and we are well underway in implementing key recommendations like establishing a kosher/halal kitchen on campus, improving our holy day policies, adding Jewish voices to the new DEI Council being developed, and including antisemitism as part of our mandatory training modules of students, faculty, and staff.

I’d also like to thank Dave Cohn from Hillel. He’s been a cherished partner for me as we have faced a difficult time for our Hillel community. And I’d like to thank Rabbi Dov Wagner and Runya Wagner, who‘ve also been wonderful to me and who together create a special environment for our Jewish students at the USC Chabad center.

And finally, I’d like to ask all of you to join me in thanking the faculty and staff at both institutions, who are the heart of five decades of outstanding Jewish scholarship, education, and outreach.

We know from past experience that scholarly work, research, and education goes a long way towards creating positive change in our society.

By leveraging our strong academic partnership, we can continue to support Jewish Life and combat antisemitism at USC and beyond. And in doing so, we’re so fortunate to be able to rely upon the work of:

  • The Casden Institute, under Steve Ross and his team. In fact, the Casden Institute was first conceived out of the USC/HUC partnership, and several HUC faculty were early collaborators with the institute and still play an important role in its mission.
  • The Shoah Foundation and initiatives they sponsor like the Stronger Than Hate Initiative, to bring together diverse voices to discuss history and research of issues like antisemitism, islamophobia, and others.
  • The Center for Advanced Genocide Research at the USC Dornsife College, under director Professor Wolf Gruner.
  • And partnerships with the ADL, American Jewish Committee, and Jewish Federation – each of which had a representative willing to participate on our Advisory Committee on Jewish Life.

Our institutes, our students, and all of you will keep us ever looking forward, and Fighting On! Thank you.

President Andrew Rehfeld

Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion

President Rehfeld was introduced by Josh Kun, interim dean of the USC Thornton School of Music.

Thank you, Josh, for that kind introduction and for your more than a decade of inspiring leadership of HUC’s Skirball Campus here in Los Angeles.

Thank you, Dr. Folt, for your commitment to our historic and growing partnership, and for hosting today’s celebration.

I’d also like to thank Professor Leah Hochman, the director of the Louchheim School for Judaic Studies. And I want to recognize Marlene, Mark, and Matthew Louchheim (who are all here today), as well as Marcie and Howard Zelikow—the namesakes of our Louchheim and Zelikow Schools, whose vision, commitments, and generosity have sustained and shaped our work.

And also thank you to our immediate past board chair, Sue Newman Hochberg, for all her work.

Allow me to begin by taking you back in time and space, to Cincinnati in 1925. Imagine a tweedy and unmistakably professorial gentleman on a balmy spring day, blowing a whistle—half-berating, half-encouraging a twenty-three-year-old rabbinical student running laps, huffing and puffing his way around the HUC driveway.

You see, very early in our history an HUC education was built around a secular university education. Our earliest students studied at the University of Cincinnati and had to meet all its requirements for the B.A.— including P.E., which our future rabbi had attempted to shirk. And thus the “spectacle of that five-foot-eleven, 125 pounder, more dead than alive…[earning] his [bachelor’s] degree, by falling flat on his face.”

My how times have changed!

For one thing, the coach and whistle blower in that story was former HUC President Julius Morgenstern. And while college presidents are required to do a great many things, well, let’s just say that coaching is no longer part of my job!

But the core principle remains the same today as it was at HUC’s founding in 1875: Religious leadership depends on the critical thinking and cultivation of civic character that the modern secular university provides.

The USC-HUC relationship that we celebrate today, reflects those very commitments. Our partnership reflects a view that liberal education founded on reason and cultivation of ethical responsibility is essential to creating decent, caring, and just societies.

HUC-JIR, believes that a secular education shapes, enriches, and deepens religious learning of our seminary.

We were built on the revolutionary ideas of Reform Judaism, which is differentiated from other fundamentalist streams of religion by embracing Enlightenment values shared by modern secular institutions: that our faith must always be limited by what reason and science discover about our world, and that each of us is individually responsible for meeting our moral obligations.

While our rabbinical school is widely known, we operate three other schools here in Los Angeles

that are secular in their orientation: the Zelikow School of Jewish Nonprofit Management, the Louchheim School of Jewish Studies here at USC, and in large part our Education School.

The USC-HUC relationship has helped HUC live up to our own educational purpose. 

The partnership starts with our faculty, who are drawn to the Skirball Campus because of the scholarly opportunities that the partnership with a great research institution like USC affords. A few examples of the results of this partnership include:

  • Co-edited volumes of, and contributions to the USC Casden Institute’s publication, The Jewish Role in American Life: An Annual Review, on topics ranging from Jewish food to presidential politics.
  • Research colloquia that welcome our scholars to test out new ideas together with USC scholars, spanning the Bible to modern Jewish languages and regional demographic studies.
  • Our shared undergraduate teaching in the Louchheim School of Judaic Studies and our dual graduate degrees with the Zelikow School, educating thousands of students over our 50 years together.

USC undergraduates go on to enroll at HUC, and our graduate students have also served as TAs in our USC undergraduate courses, as well.

With mutual access to each other’s libraries—and HUC has the largest Jewish library and archives outside of Israel—we have also created a common forum for learning and scholarly research.

Our partnership also advances the important moral and civic values that President Folt has articulated and for which our own institution stands. Our founders dreamt that this kind of education would vindicate American ideals of civic belonging.

Our founder, Isaac Mayer Wise, saw universities as “gathering places not only for the youth of different countries, but also for the young of Catholic, Protestant, and Jews, for the son of the prince, count, baron, shoemaker, or tailor. [Universities were schools] of equality, where superstition and prejudice, fanaticism and bigotry were doomed to raise their heads no more.”

When I see the kind of partnership that is possible here, I share HUC’s founder’s hope that the great principles of reason and individual responsibility on which our institutions are founded, remain the best path to build strong, decent societies for all, no matter their origins, no matter their faith. 

It remains our privilege to pursue these ideals together with the University of Southern California. And we remain inspired by the educational and civic spirit of excellence articulated by President Folt’s leadership. 

Through our continued collaboration together, the next 25 years should only make our last 50 look like a mere warm up around the track.