American Jewish University recently announced that we are selling our Familian Campus in Bel Air. This has prompted many questions from the community: Are we going out of business? Are we moving to an online-only model? Are we also going to sell the 2,600 acres we own at our Brandeis Bardin Campus in the Simi Valley? The answer to all these questions is absolutely not.
We are seeking to sell the Familian Campus because we no longer believe that holding twenty-two acres in Bel Air is necessarily the best way to support our critical mission of promoting Jewish journeys, and strengthening the Jewish life of individuals, organizations, and our community.
The challenges and opportunities facing the Jewish communities of North America are multi-faceted: synagogues are struggling to attract members; Jewish literacy and understanding is declining dramatically; many in the next generation have an increasingly strained and complicated relationship with Israel; with more than 50 percent of American Jews intermarrying, Jewish families look different than they ever have; waves of immigrants from the Middle East and the former Soviet Union have added new life and dimensions to our communities, which have long been centered in an Ashkenazi worldview. We believe that building a highly flexible organization that can respond nimbly to trends across the Jewish landscape is vital.
I have heard from many of you that this decision has raised complicated feelings associated with memories of spending time at our Familian Campus. For many of us, Judaism is strongly linked to the structure that we visited and memories of an institution we joined or frequented. For better or for worse, this is not the Judaism of our children and our grandchildren. Today, our community’s most successful efforts involve experiences and relationships. In order to succeed, Jewish organizations must meet people where they are (literally), be nimble, and accessible.
TODAY, OUR COMMUNITY’S MOST SUCCESSFUL EFFORTS INVOLVE EXPERIENCES AND RELATIONSHIPS. IN ORDER TO SUCCEED, JEWISH ORGANIZATIONS MUST MEET PEOPLE WHERE THEY ARE (LITERALLY), BE NIMBLE, AND ACCESSIBLE.
Just in the last two years, we have seen many examples where AJU has responded to evolving opportunities in a bold manner to make a significant communal impact:
- Our School for Jewish Education and Leadership, addressing an important gap in the professionalization of Jewish teachers, has started both bachelor's completion and master’s degrees in Jewish early childhood education. These are offered nationwide online and have both synchronous (where everyone is online together) and asynchronous (where students access the course material when convenient) components. As a result, enrollment has tripled in just four years as teachers are hungry for education that will allow them to educate young Jewish students, and not incidentally their families, in developmentally appropriate and research-based methods. The implications for these young families, and the Jewish institutions they will enter, are profound.
- The Miller Introduction to Judaism cemented its position as the foremost program in the world engaging newcomers to Judaism through learning. The program, via in-person and zoom classes, now has more students enrolled directly than at any time in its thirty years. The online students come from dozens of different countries while our in-person classes are taught at local synagogues. Our curriculum is now offered in 175 Jewish institutions across North America.
- The Maven digital platform has registered over 100,000 users for more than two hundred programs since the start of the pandemic that have imparted Jewish wisdom and spirituality across the world. Maven is now developing partnerships with dozens of Jewish institutions across the country to provide best-in-class digital content for their constituencies.
- On April 10th and 11th, AJU will co-sponsor with the Herzl Institute and ANU—the Museum of the Jewish People a major conference in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv on the worldwide phenomena of potentially millions of people, often due to discoveries through genetic testing, learning that they have one or more ancestors who are Jewish and therefore are seeking greater affinity with Jews and Israel. These new populations have the potential to provide important new support for Jews and for the Jewish state at a time when antisemitism is increasing worldwide.
All these initiatives, as well as AJU’s other ongoing programs, go to the heart of Jewish challenges—how to bring young families into Jewish learning (and thus often into synagogues), how to extend Jewish learning into adulthood, how to address those at the margins of Jewish life, and how to increase support for the Jews and Israel while combatting antisemitism. They reflect AJU’s ability to pivot and our absolute determination to provide solutions to Jewish problems rather than simply be part of the chorus proclaiming doom.
After many months of thoughtful deliberation and consideration of our options, the board of directors made the bold decision to sell the Familian campus to unlock the value of that asset so that we could continue with our mission and make meaningful changes to our programs. It became clear that continuing to operate in Bel Air with the attendant cost to operate was not fiscally responsible.
At our Brandeis Bardin Campus, our much-loved and regularly sold-out Camp Alonim and the long-standing Brandeis Collegiate Institute are tied to the land, and we will continue to hold and invest in that wonderful property.
Selling Familian does not mean that we will be entirely online. We are simply going to find a physical space that suits our current needs. We may stay in Bel Air in a reduced footprint. We may also move. AJU already has a long history of offering in-person classes (including the Miller Introduction to Judaism Program and Hebrew) at other physical locations across the city, a practice we will continue.
Families move and companies relocate all the time in response to opportunity. AJU is taking a bold step because that is what is required to address the problems that the Jewish community faces. Our track record demonstrates that the return on our new initiatives is very high, and we look forward to using all of our resources in service of the Jewish community in Los Angeles and across the country.
Jeffrey Herbst is President of American Jewish University.