L.A. Reform seminary renamed for Homestead–born rabbi
The Jewish community in Homestead is long gone, but it’s not forgotten.
At least, not some of them.
At least, not in Los Angeles.
Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion has announced that it will soon rename its Los Angeles campus in memory of Jack H. Skirball —rabbi, filmmaker, developer and philanthropist — whose drive led to the establishment of the campus.
The ceremony will take place Feb. 6, 1 p.m. at the school, 3077 University Ave., Los Angeles.
“It is truly fitting that this campus be named after Jack Skirball, whose vision and philanthropy guided the creation of this campus and played a central role in acquiring its location,” HUC-JIR President Rabbi David Ellenson said in a prepared statement. “The Jack H. Skirball Campus pays tribute to his devotion and commitment to Jewish life and American society as a whole, and we are honored that his name will add to the prominence of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in the Los Angeles community and the larger world.”
The decision comes as the Skirball Foundation is giving the seminary a $10 million gift to sustain the campus.
According to those who knew him, Skirball pushed for the L.A. campus at a time when the establishment within the Reform movement seriously doubted the need for it.
“I think it was his forceful negotiations with Dr. Nelson Glueck, then president of Hebrew Union College, which, made it possible for L.A. to have a campus,” said Uri Herscher, president of the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles, a longtime friend of Skirball’s. “I think at the time the people who served on the board of governors of Hebrew Union College felt there was no Jewish life west of the Mississippi.
“Jack lived on the West coast and he saw the immense growth of Jewish life [there],” Herscher continued, “and, being extremely persuasive and close to Glueck, raised the awareness that the campus was necessary to serve the growing Jewish population.”
Skirball was not your average pulpit rabbi.
Born in Homestead in 1896, the youngest of 10 children, Skirball attended the University of Cincinnati and Western Reserve College in Cleveland before entering HUC. While there he befriended another area native and future giant in Reform Judaism, Jacob Rader Marcus of Wheeling, W.Va.
After his rabbinic ordination in 1921, and graduate work in philosophy and sociology at the University of Chicago, Skirball took a position as an assistant rabbi in Cleveland for two years before getting his own pulpit in Evansville, Ind.
He would stay there for seven years before his life took new directions.
“His brother Bill was in [the film] business,” Herscher said. “Bill was very much into educational films and saw his brother’s talent and enticed him to make the transition.”
Skirball’s first film, “Birth of a Baby” (1938), became controversial for showing actual film footage of a baby being born. The film was shown to segregated-by-sex audiences in some cities.
After that his career took off. According to the New York Times, Skirball became a vice president in charge of production at Grand National Pictures, president of Arcadia Pictures and a producer at several major studios.
As an independent film producer, he sponsored Alfred Hitchcock’s “Shadow of a Doubt” in 1943. He co-produced “Jacobowsky and the Colonel” on Broadway in 1944, and several other motion pictures.
But he never forgot his Reform Jewish roots. Skirball served as a regional president for the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, he assisted in the creation of new congregations, he spearheaded the development of HUC-JIR’s Los Angeles campus and he established the Skirball Museum at HUC-JIR/Los Angeles, the Skirball Museum at HUC-JIR/Cincinnati, and the Skirball Museum and Center for Biblical and Archaeological Research at HUC-JIR/Jerusalem.
Skirball died in 1985.
Despite all the many institutions that today bear his name, Skirball may have been proudest of having the L.A. campus named for him.
“I think he would have appreciated the honor,” Herscher said. “He really loved rabbis and cantors and educators. This dimension in honoring his memory was very appropriate. He would have said, ‘Yes, thank you. I feel privileged.’ ”
(Lee Chottiner can be reached at email@example.com.)