Brad Artson, Bob Wexler, Mark Bookman And The Battle For The Future Of The University Of Judaism

Dr. Wexler is the U.J.'s president but Artson and Bookman battle to succeed him.

Rabbi Artson (the runner-up to David Wolpe in the Temple Sinai sweepstakes nine years ago) gets most of the limelight. You can download his picture here. He's the only person at UJ (and the only rabbi) of which I am aware who offers his own picture as a download. I wonder if it is a popular screensaver?

Brad's first love was politics. According to his official biography: "A cum laude graduate of Harvard University, Rabbi Artson was an intern for United States Senator Alan Cranston and for United States Representative John Burton. For the two years following graduation from college, he worked as a Legislative Aide to Willie Brown, the Speaker of the California State Assembly. He was ordained with honors at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in 1988."

Brad was a typical left-wing political activist but when his mentor John Burton resigned under threat of revelations about drugs and other improprieties (Cranston was also reprimanded for ethical shortcomings), Artson considered running for Congress, explored the possibility, realized it would not fly, and shifted his focus to rabbinics (though he's remained committed to the Democratic party and has many friends in such powerful places).

With one of the sharpest minds in the Conservative movement, Rabbi Artson (I've seen him around the Pico-Robertson neighborhood wearing blue jeans and his tzitzit out) has a love for public service (his detractors would call it a lust for power). An eloquent speaker and writer, he carries himself in a regal manner. His students call him "Rabbi Artson." They have such feelings as respect and fear towards him.

Rabbi Artson believes his Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies is in fierce competition with the Jewish Theological Seminary. But there is no competition. The quality of the faculty and students are superior at JTS and the New York institution has more money. Academic demands at UJ are below those of JTS.

I suspect that most Ziegler students were rejected by JTS or realized on their own that they could not make it there.

Rabbi Artson believes the focus of the University of Judaism should be Judaism (and particularly the training of rabbis). He opposed the opening of the college of liberal arts. He wants to replace Wexler and implement his own vision. He opposes the secular graduate programs. He wants to use that money to perpetuate Conservative Judaism.

"It's hard to imagine that when the prophets called on Israel to rededicate themselves to God," Rabbi Mordecai Finley (a frequent UJ teacher) has often said, "they meant folk dancing."

Dr. Robert Wexler and his family became Modern Orthodox a few years ago. Consequently, he shifted the UJ away from the Conservative movement to a more independent place (this cost the UJ Conservative funding and makes its financial task more difficult).

As a Modern Orthodox Jew, Dr. Wexler no longer believed in many of the tenets of Conservative Judaism. This alienated him from many of the leaders of the Conservative movement.

Brad's argument is that Bob should not lead the university anymore because UJ was born as a Conservative school. It's nice that Bob is Modern Orthodox, says Brad, but he should do that on his own and not drag the the school with him.

Many key people at the UJ (and Danny Gordis when he ran Ziegler and lived in Los Angeles) belong to Orthodox shuls and spend more time there than in Conservative synagogues. This creates bad feelings on the part of those primarily committed to the Conservative movement.

Brad's main enemy at UJ is not Bob Wexler, who supports Brad and the way he runs Ziegler. Brad's main enemy is UJ's number two administrator, Mark Bookman, who would also love to be UJ president. Mark and Brad have had many screaming fights.

Bookman supports the secular programs at UJ.

Brad has big advantages over Mark in becoming UJ president -- Brad is a rabbi, has published widely, is a dynamic speaker and thinker and is well-respected, even by people who dislike the UJ.

Brad's name was floated as the new leader of the JTS but that was never going to happen.

Brad completely runs Ziegler. Nobody can do anything without his approval, including the questions you can ask a candidate for the school.

If a majority of the admissions committee opposes admitting a prospective student to Ziegler, Rabbi Artson reserves the right to veto such opposition and admit the student on a probationary scheme.

Rabbinic students not cut out for receiving ordination often receive instead a masters degree in Rabbinics.

Rabbi Artson pays lip service to Israel, but I don't believe he's a Zionist (Artson is almost a pacifist, and such an approach could never sustain a Jewish state). Though he requires Ziegler students to spend one year in Israel, when the second Intifada began in the fall of 2001, Brad gave exemptions to those who sought one. He said he was concerned for their safety.

Many students and professors at UJ are not Zionists.

Brad does not encourage his students to move to Israel. He's not concerned that two of his faculty members (Mimi Feigelson, Aryeh Cohen) do not stand for the Israeli national anthem.

Rabbi Artson is a great politician. He has smooth people skills. He is a moderately successfull fundraiser. He has the support of his faculty and his students because he fights for the same things they believe in. Brad's stabilized the school. He's brought in new faculty. He's established more prestige for Ziegler vis-a-vis the UJ.

One day Rabbi Artson may convince the UJ board that he is better suited to running the place.

Rabbi Artson and Rabbi Elliot Dorff are considered by the media two of the more gay-friendly leaders in Conservative Judaism. Rabbi Dorff has a daughter who is a lesbian and Rabbi Artson has an activist sister who's also an out-of-the-closet lesbian.

Rabbi Artson's second-in-command (Ziegler Associate Dean Rabbi Cheryl Peretz) is zealous in implementing his vision.

Brad's supporters include Elliot Dorff, and Lois Oppenheim. His detractors include Zofia Yalovsky, Dr. Ron Wolfson, and Gady Levy.


Rabbi David Wolpe' first question: "Before coming here, I was at a shiva house where I met a rabbi who said I could quote him by name, [University of Judaism rosh yeshiva] Brad Artson. I said to him, 'What should I ask Steve Fried?' [Rabbi Artson replied] 'If you believed in a God and a Final Judgement, would you have written the book the same way?'"


Stephen, taken aback: "Wow. That's the first question? When people are upset about a book and they come to talk to you, they expect that the point you brought up is one you totally haven't thought of. It doesn't occur to them that you might have thought of it, carefully considered it, and still made the same decision. I've been doing [journalism] for 20 years. I spent four years researching the book and I had a lot of time to think about what I could and couldn't do... I think that some of the people upset with the book are under the impression that this was done off the top of the head. It wasn't.

"There are a group of rabbis with specific concerns about [the book]. I hear from a lot of people who have a warm response, some of whom are surprised to hear about what the rabbis are upset about. I don't think the issues that the rabbis have focused on would be in most people's top ten [list of concerns with the book]."


Imbalanced and Toxic?

I asked the head of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the University of Judaism (UJ), Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, to participate in a UJ panel on Jewish journalism. I directed him to my discussion of Stephen Fried's book The New Rabbi. This book symbolizes to me great Jewish journalism.

Rabbi Artson replies, copying the email to Gady Levy, head of adult education at UJ: "Dear Mr. Ford; I did review your website, and find it imbalanced and toxic, particularly toward rabbis and Conservative Judaism. I am not willing to participate in your panel."

Rabbi Artson happily expounds at length in private with his peers on how horrible The New Rabbi is and how un-Jewish and unethical it is, but I've yet to see him stand and deliver his thoughts publicly. How Jewish and ethical is that? Slam the book privately, challenge whether the author Stephen Fried believes in God and a Final Judgment, but when asked to publicly justify his harsh statements, Rabbi Artson refuses.

That so many Conservative rabbis, particularly Conservative leaders like Rabbi Artson, don't want to publicly discuss this book, The New Rabbi, makes it seem to many of us that they are thin-skinned control freaks who expect only deferential treatment from journalists. Unlike leaders in other spheres of life, such rabbis expect to not be challenged and to not be held accountable by the news media. What's amusing is that they've always been able to get away with this stance due to the timid and deferential approach of Jewish newspapers such as the Jewish Journal of Los Angeles.

I asked Rabbi Artson many months ago for comment on this book. I referred him to the dozen or so interviews I've done on the topic with rabbis, Jewish journalists, and authors of respected Jewish books. I got no reply.

I will keep asking Conservative leaders to comment on the book and I will keep noting when they wimp out.

An assistant rabbi at Temple Sinai said The New Rabbi was filled with lashon hara. He hated the book.