Herscher, Uri David

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HERSCHER, URI DAVID (1941– ), U.S. rabbi, professor, founder and chief executive of the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles. Born in Tel Aviv to parents who fled Germany in the mid-1930s, Herscher's childhood home was shadowed by the annihilation of his extended family in the Nazi scourge. His early youth witnessed the privations of the British Mandate period, relieved by summers in a kibbutz with an aunt and uncle. Religion was not part of his upbringing; the idealism of the infant Jewish state and the communitarian ethos of the kibbutz shaped his formative years. In 1954, he immigrated with his parents and brother to the U.S., joining relatives in San José, California. Speaking no English upon his arrival, he nonetheless thrived in his new home, befriended by neighbors, teachers, and classmates, few of whom were Jews. The hospitable welcome he and his family received was a decisive event in his life, defining his conviction that America was good to and for the Jews.

At the University of California at Berkeley in the early 1960s, Herscher and another student organized a summer camp for underprivileged youth. Seeking donated clothing for the children, he met Robert D. Haas, a classmate and scion of the Levi Strauss family, noted for its philanthropy. An enduring friendship ensued that would prove instrumental to his later endeavors.

He gained admission to Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. Declining to seek a pulpit upon ordination, he accepted an administrative position at the College-Institute, at the same time pursuing a doctorate in American Jewish history under the guidance of Stanley F. Chyet. In 1975 he was appointed professor of American Jewish history and executive vice president and dean of the faculty of the College-Institute, overseeing its campuses in Cincinnati, Los Angeles, New York, and Jerusalem.

In 1979, Herscher moved from Cincinnati to Los Angeles. Recognizing that the vast majority of Jews were unaffiliated and increasingly indifferent to Jewish concerns, he envisioned a new strategy of communal outreach and engagement: the creation of a cultural center that would focus on the American Jewish experience. The center housed the College-Institute's Skirball Museum, whose collection of artifacts would tell the story of the Jewish people from antiquity to America. The center also included venues for public lectures, performing arts, and educational activities.

Over the next decade, with help from key supporters such as Jack H. Skirball, Los Angeles Times Chairman Franklin Murphy, and the Levi Strauss family of San Francisco, Herscher garnered major contributions from both Jewish and non-Jewish benefactors. A fifteen-acre site was acquired in the Santa Monica mountains, and renowned Israeli-American architect Moshe Safdie was engaged to design the campus. In 1996 the Skirball Cultural Center, separately incorporated, opened to the public, with Herscher as founding president and chief executive. An immediate success, the Center attracted some 300,000 visitors in its first year, leading to an ambitious expansion of its facilities, programs, and endowment. By 2005, the Center had become one of the world's major Jewish cultural institutions.

Herscher's conceptual vision broadened as well. Underlining his commitment to the welfare of the wider community, in 2001 he accepted appointment to the Ethics Commission of Los Angeles. At his instigation, the Skirball's mission statement was expanded to address "people of every ethnic and cultural identity."

[Robert Kirschner (2nd ed.)]

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