A new architectural gem will soon decorate Jerusalem’s horizon. Designed by renowned architect Moshe Safdie, a “beautified,” enlarged and renovated Hebrew Union College campus will be conspicuously nestled between the capital’s two most luxurious hotels — the historical King David and the more modern David Citadel.
But in Israel, where everything is arguably political — or at least arguable — the creation of a stunning space dedicated to Reform Jewry on Main Street, Jerusalem, is more than merely a beautification project. For many, it is a statement, a striking physical reminder of religious pluralism.
Just ahead of the June 29 construction project’s groundbreaking ceremony, The Times of Israel sat with the project’s major funder, Tad Taube, who donated $15 million, and the president of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute Rabbi Aaron Panken to discuss the renovation’s potential impact and implications — intentional or not.
On the face of it, the new Taube Family Campus will continue to serve as the headquarters to a number of Reform Jewry’s major institutions. As such, the names of the Israeli Reform Movement, the World Union for Progressive Judaism, the Israel Religious Action Center, and other affiliated flagship Reform groups will be clearly listed on the wall abutting the well-traveled King David Street.
“It is a prominent statement and message about the presence of Reform Judaism in the holy city of Jerusalem. That’s critical to us, yes,” said Panken, nodding his head vigorously in agreement.
But stoking Israeli Orthodoxy’s wrath against the Reform movement is not the intention of philanthropist Taube: “We’re not trying to start a religious war, if that’s what you’re saying.”
HUC’s Panken agreed readily.
“It’s not a political question; it’s actually an ethical and a Jewish question of how do you create a Jewish democratic state that has room for all sorts of diverse expressions of Judaism. That’s what we believe in. We don’t want to take anything away from anybody, we simply believe we should have a place … where we should celebrate as well. But our job is educational, that’s very clear,” said Panken.
“The reality is that we’re here to build a better Israel. A better Israel has various diverse expressions of Jewish life that are respected and loved, and that’s what we hope to build,” said Panken.
‘We’re here to build a better Israel. A better Israel has various diverse expressions of Jewish life that are respected and loved’
For Taube as well, the overarching idea is to create a more welcoming space for Israelis across the spectrum to encounter Judaism, not only for the customary HUC students and visitors from abroad who frequent the college today.
“I think the important message is — and I know in Israel it’s hard to get that message across — is that we want Jews to remain as Jews. And that’s a global problem for the Jewish people, as you know. The Reform movement is part of the matrix of Jewish life that keep people Jewish. And I think that should be the first consideration,” said Taube.
Even in Israel, where most Jewish religious expression is within an Orthodox framework, the Reform movement provides “ease of access for those people not affiliated at all… In Reform, the pathway is a lot simpler,” said Taube.
In our conversation, Taube repeatedly objected to being labeled as merely a supporter of liberal Jewry in Israel. He emphasized that whether in Israel or elsewhere, his goal is to bring Jews to Judaism and vice versa, and that takes many forms.
“My presence here could be seen as being a home run for the Reform movement, but I am a great supporter for Jewish life across the world,” he said.
In Poland, for instance, Taube Philanthropies broadly supports much of the work of Chief Rabbi Michael Schudrich, who identifies as Orthodox. At his alma mater Stanford University, he funds both the Chabad House and the nondenominational Hillel House — both centers of Jewish life on campus, which, Taube said, weren’t speaking with each other when he stepped in.
“It doesn’t matter which street the Jews are walking, as long as it’s a Jewish street,” said Taube. “That’s the goal of my Jewish life, to bring all facets together. Be Reform, Orthodox, or Conservative, but be something… The alternative is nothingness, not even tikkun olam, but ‘social justice’ — a hollow phrase people fly under and don’t live by.”
Not to be pigeonholed
At several points during an hour’s wide-ranging conversation, the Krakow-born 85-year-old showed why he has a reputation for not being your run-of-the-mill staid philanthropist.
In a visit to The Times of Israel’s Jerusalem offices, his mischievous smile and laid-back West Coast attitude were on full display as the father of six proudly showed off a photo of his 13-year-old basketball-playing son, and, half-jokingly, told Panken that another, much older, son could be material for the rabbinate.
Chatting freely, Taube spoke about the photographic wonder that is the iPhone, and how because of it, his traveling is no longer hampered by lugging about cameras and lenses to feed his hobby.
And Taube’s philanthropy is as varied as his conversation, ranging from major gifts for sports centers, Jewish and secular education, high and low arts and culture and pan-denominational Jewish causes.
Taube noted that his interest in the Jewish world began incrementally.
By most definitions, Taube is classified as a Holocaust survivor: Born in Krakow in 1931, he immigrated to the United States in the summer of 1939, a few months before the start of World War II. Most of the relatives left behind perished.
After landing in New York, his family was quickly penniless and moved to the West Coast to seek their fortunes. As refugees, at one point the family was even forced to leave the US until their papers could be sorted out. Taube became an official US citizen only after enlisting in the Air Force.
“I am a survivor who escaped and lost most of my family. For years that made no mark on me,” neither in college, nor as a young businessman, he said. “I didn’t think about it. I only started thinking when I became involved in Jewish life.”
But as Taube’s success increased, so too did the calls for philanthropic involvement and eventually he was asked to serve on the San Francisco board of the American Friends of Hebrew University. That turned into work with the Israeli board, which saw him become involved with other Israeli institutions, and other Jewish groups stateside.
‘It was a gradual immersion, as if someone held me and immersed me carefully and slowly in Jewish life’
“It was a gradual immersion, as if someone held me and immersed me carefully and slowly in Jewish life. And the more immersed I was, I became more comfortable with myself — where I am as a human being, not in terms of Jewish dogma… but helping others, bleeding for children who are starving, bleeding for the victims of this horrible event in Turkey,” said Taube. (The interview took place the day after the terrorist attack in the Istanbul airport which saw 45 killed and over 230 injured.)
The arguable crown of Taube’s philanthropy to date is Warsaw’s POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews. Taube was a major benefactor himself and, as its former president, controversially led the even larger Koret Foundation to earmark significant funds. (Longtime Taube friend Joseph Koret’s widow, Susan, is currently in legal action against Taube for what she calls “funneling” of the foundation’s monies to “pet projects.”)
According to a 2014 AFP story on the opening of the museum’s permanent exhibit, the city of Warsaw and the Polish culture ministry paid some $54 million for the building, while the exhibition was funded by the Jewish Historical Institute and its donors at some $35.5 million.
The award-winning POLIN museum has significantly raised the profile of Polish Jewry, said Taube, who described its opening as being “like the coronation of a monarch.” In the past two years, it has welcomed hundreds of thousands of visitors.
Unlike most Jewish museums around the world, the POLIN museum is not centered around the Holocaust, which saw the deaths of some 3 million Polish Jews, or 90 percent of its pre-war population. Built on the remnants of the Warsaw ghetto, it is, rather, a high-profile a celebration of 1,000 years of Jewish culture in Poland.
Jews are always cast in the role of “visitors in another land,” said Taube. The museum “taught the world” that over a period of 1,000 years in Poland, Jewish culture “is the underpinning of Western culture.”
Calling it a “a beacon of Jewish culture and history,” Taube said that the real triumph of the POLIN museum is that the Polish people assumed ownership of it and that it is a national museum and not merely connected to a private Jewish organization. Likewise, world Jewry sees the museum as “an anchor.”
“It underscores something very important about Jewish survival because part of Jewish survival is feeling good about being Jewish. Don’t you agree?” he asked.