A Short History 1937-2009
by Sarah Bassin, Rabbinic Intern 2008-09
The Board of Rabbis of Southern California (BOR) first convened in 1937 under the leadership of Rabbi Jacob Kohn of Congregation Sinai. At that time, Los Angeles was home to 95,000 Jews, making the City of Angels the fourth largest concentration of Jews in the United States. The Board's initial 21 members, spanning the Reform, Conservative and Orthodox movements, organized in response to what one critic identified as a "lack of unity" in the Jewish community. Tensions ran high between the secular United Jewish Community and the rabbis of local congregations who were largely removed from communal decisions affecting Los Angeles Jewry.
With no professional staff, the BOR met for 30 years in the offices and congregations of various members to contribute a rabbinic voice on the issues facing the community. They rallied around those affairs they considered most pressing in their day including Jewish education reform, standardized kashrut, and the prevention of temporary "mushroom synagogues" during the High Holy Days that threatened established congregations.
In spite of the tensions between the clergy and the secular leadership of the Jewish community, partnership between the two increased as the Board of Rabbis became more established. In 1967, Rabbis Aaron Weiss and Morton Bauman proposed that the BOR coordinate community chaplaincy and rabbinic giving to the United Jewish Fund Campaign in exchange for the Jewish Federation providing an executive director and office space at the 590 Vermont building. As part of the agreement, the Board of Rabbis insisted on independence in issuing any public proclamations deemed necessary without the approval or oversight of the Federation.
Once this proposal was accepted, the Board of Rabbis chose Los Angeles native Rabbi Paul Dubin as its executive vice president. His presence as professional staff enabled the organization to increase its profile and reach into the Jewish community and the community-at-large. The Board of Rabbis took on a leading role in interfaith relations, helping to create the Interreligious Council of Southern California. Interfaith relations, however, did not overshadow the need for intra-faith work. Rabbi Dubin also established a Council of Synagogue Associations, bringing denominations together to address problems facing the entire Jewish community.
The interests of the presidents elected for two year terms determined much of the agenda of the Board of Rabbis and have spanned everything from Jewish hospice care to labor rights. Monthly meetings were open to all members, to encourage the leadership to reflect the will of the majority. Passions alone did not determine everything; major historical events have also shaped the organization's agenda. In the 1980's, education about AIDS and legal rights for those living with the disease became a priority. Likewise, the 1992 Los Angeles riots sparked a cross-religious campaign for police reform.
When Rabbi Dubin retired at the end of 1997, the search for a new executive vice president raised questions about what the Board of Rabbis ought to be as an organization and how it should relate to the Jewish Federation. Ultimately, a decision was made to further integrate the Board of Rabbis into the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, with the executive vice president reporting to the presidents of both organizations. Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson and Rabbi Lawrence Goldmark each served tenures as Executive Director prior to Rabbi Mark S. Diamond accepting the position in 1999, along with the task of navigating the waters of this new relationship.
With the support of the Board of Rabbis and Jewish Federation, and the leadership of John Fishel, Federation President and CEO, Rabbi Diamond built a programming budget and expanded the BOR professional staff. These new resources facilitated interfaith missions to Rome and Jerusalem, launched an Interreligious Action Center, improved health care and prison chaplaincy programs, and expanded professional development seminars and workshops for rabbis, as highlighted by the High Holy Days Seminar. The Board also sponsors tikkun olam initiatives and educational opportunities for the public, including "One People, One Book," a transdenominational program of community learning.
What began as a casual collegial network of 21 rabbis has transformed into a complex organization of over 300 members. In 2009 the Board of Rabbis celebrated the historic election and installation of Rabbi Denise L. Eger, the first female and the first openly gay or lesbian president of the Board in its 72-year history. The oldest living past president best captures the journey of the organization. According to Rabbi Jack Pressman, the Board of Rabbis was initially "a loose fellowship of rabbis in Greater Los Angeles in the years before and shortly after World War II." The Board of Rabbis has now become "a recognized, respected, and important branch of the concerned Jewish community, whose influence is extended throughout much of the Jewish, as well as public, institutions of communal service in Los Angeles."
For a more detailed history, click here.