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CULTURE : Take the 405 to Utopia : Fourteen years in the making, the Hebrew Union College Skirball Cultural Center will open in April, without fanfare--or debts.

<i> Diane Haithman is a Times staff writer</i>

Rabbi Uri D. Herscher, president and chief executive officer of the Hebrew Union College Skirball Cultural Center, believes that Utopia is possible. And, if he has anything to say about it, you’ll be able to get there from the San Diego Freeway.

The Skirball Cultural Center, an airy, peaceful structure of pale stone, stainless steel and glass designed by architect Moshe Safdie, close yet somehow remote from a tangle of 405 Freeway off-ramps, is located in the Sepulveda Pass north of Getty Center Drive, and officially opens its doors in April. The 350-seat auditorium and other rooms have already been used for luncheons and meetings, including a founders dinner in October with National Endowment for the Arts chair Jane Alexander as the keynote speaker.

In development for more than 14 years, the $65-million center, launched with a donation of close to $30 million from the Skirball Foundation, has neared completion without much fanfare just two miles north of the much-trumpeted $733-million Getty Center museum and arts complex, scheduled to open in the fall of 1997. Herscher notes that the land for the Skirball Center was purchased before the land for the Getty: “I’m glad the owners of this land didn’t know about the Getty--what would they have asked for it?”

Like the Getty, the Skirball will become part of a ridge-top cluster of cultural, educational and religious institutions off Sepulveda near Mulholland Drive that includes prestigious private high schools, the University of Judaism and Bel-Air Presbyterian Church--which collectively have raised fears of overcrowding on the part of Santa Monica Mountains conservationists.

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Herscher, 54, acknowledges that his own publicity-shyness is in part responsible for Skirball center’s quiet growth; he refused to call a recent Times interview at the center an interview: “I don’t know how to do interviews, we will have a conversation,” he said.

Herscher said he also has had little to say publicly about the new center because he was afraid of speaking too soon (in fact, the Skirball complex was originally slated to open in 1992).

“We have quietly built it, and I was never quite secure that we would finish it--so I didn’t want to disappoint anyone,” Herscher said. Besides, he added, “I can’t take credit for saying that I am the sole dreamer; I would say that I’ve had a great deal to do with the evolution of this institution, but there have been many wonderful friends and colleagues who have been with me on this journey.”

The efforts of Herscher and other dreamers could hardly be described as disappointing. In fact--and this is almost unheard-of in the nonprofit world--the facility will not only be debt-free by next year, it also has a substantial endowment of $25 million in place. A long list of major donors includes the Ahmanson Foundation, the J. Paul Getty Trust, the Milken Family Foundation, the Ralph M. Parsons Foundation and the Times Mirror Foundation (Times Mirror is the parent company of the Los Angeles Times). Major support also came from Robert D. Haas, a former college roommate of Herscher’s, who is chairman and chief executive officer of Levi Strauss & Co.

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Along with offering a center for community and arts activities, the facility is the new home of the Skirball Museum of Hebrew Union College, a collection of 25,000 objects of Jewish art and Judaica, which had been tucked away in the basement of a building at the corner of 32nd and Hoover streets. Originally called the Hebrew Union College Museum, the collection was housed at the college’s Cincinnati campus for more than 100 years before being moved to the West Coast campus, which was established in 1954 (the college also has campuses in New York and Jerusalem). The collection was put in the building at Hoover and 32nd in 1972.

“It was a buried treasure,” said Herscher in a recent conversation, looking more the kind high school history teacher than clergyman in his navy crew neck sweater. He added that it became clear to all concerned that the collection needed a new home. “The space was too small for exhibition; it was built for a college, not a museum,” he said. “Plus we worried about floods, pipes bursting . . . plus we now have 150,000 square feet, 80,000 of which is just for the museum, vs. 7,000 square feet.”

And why Sepulveda Pass? Because, Herscher said, about two-thirds of the city’s Jews live on the Westside or in the San Fernando Valley within a 15-mile radius of the center, and Sepulveda Pass bridges the two.

“One of our biggest challenges is that we not be identified as another Westside institution,” he said. “As a very proud citizen of the Valley [Herscher and family live in Sherman Oaks], I am very happy that we will be available to the Valley. I am also interested in all the young families in the Valley; I am interested in continuity for the future.”

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While the Skirball Center will house a museum devoted to Jewish history and the American-Jewish experience, both Herscher and Audrey Skirball-Kenis--widow of late philanthropist Jack Skirball, a former rabbi who left the rabbinate to become a successful film producer and development entrepreneur--say that, despite the “Hebrew Union College” label, the center is not just for the Jewish community, but for everybody. Herscher also hopes that the center will interest non-practicing Jews in their own history.

“This is not a place of dogma; this is not a place necessarily of one denomination or another,” Herscher said. “It is meant to teach, and it is meant to be taught by others who will visit us.”

Skirball-Kenis, who is already hosting a series of luncheons at the center, said that the Audrey Skirball-Kenis Theatre, a prestigious Los Angeles-based group that promotes theater development and has no religious affiliation, will probably use the new center as its base and as a place to conduct its ongoing Monday-night readings of new plays. (She is married to Charles Kenis, president of Bel-Air Imports in Beverly Hills; Jack Skirball died in 1985.)

“I see it as a contribution to the community, an addition to the community,” Skirball-Kenis said. “And not just the Jewish community--we will stress that.”

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Herscher said that 20% of the money to build the center came from sources with no Jewish affiliation. He added that donors also come from 23 states, and other cities in California, especially San Francisco, have supported the center. He said he sees the facility as not just a community center, but a national center. And he has thoughts of going global--the center plans to begin construction on a media center on the grounds to link the Skirball to the world next spring.

Herscher said that the Skirball center, in focusing on Jewish history, in no way intends to compete with Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Museum of Tolerance in West Los Angeles, which focuses on the Holocaust and other incidents of genocide.

“We are emphasizing a 4,000-year-old history; we are not emphasizing the last 50 years of history,” he says.

And, Herscher added: “I really wanted to tell a story that was not mournful. We are a community of memory, and all too often place the emphasis on the mournful, not the joyful. There were 18 Herschers, at least, who perished in the Holocaust, and I think the best tribute to those who were sacrificed during that black period in history--and I’m not just talking about the 6 million Jews, I’m referring to 30 million people--the best memorial to them is to repair a little corner of the world.”

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Film producer Paul Heller created the multimedia and interactive components of the new museum (he is also a board member of the Audrey Skirball-Kenis Theatre), which will go far beyond the documentary footage-on-little-screens typical of museum exhibits.

Herscher is particularly proud of the fact that family home movies will be part of the show. In one display, vignettes of Jewish history will be shown on vintage television sets from different eras, interspersed with clips from TV shows of the day. Another uses taped interviews with Jewish people about what their heritage and religion means to them. Herscher is pleased with the brutal honesty of some of them. “Some of them say ‘nothing,’ ” he said. “There are some things said here that might be considered heretical, and I’m thrilled .”

“This is a place far beyond a museum,” Herscher mused. “I almost wish I could find a word other than museum, because one all too often thinks of an elitist place; it often denotes your seeing a beautiful object behind glass, and this is a very participatory place.”

Eagerly leading a mini-tour of the facility, Herscher--who has written four books on the concept of Utopia, which he cheerfully notes were not exactly bestsellers--pointed out examples of the center’s egalitarian philosophy.

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The auditorium has only 350 seats so people will feel “safe and important” rather than overwhelmed. In a small restaurant facility, the kitchen area is located in the middle of the room so the people dining will not be separated, physically or ideologically, from the people who cook their meals.

Haifa-born architect Safdie, who made his mark by designing the utopian housing project Habitat for Montreal’s Expo ’67 and has designed numerous museums, has said: “Of course, the assumption is that everyone will come to the Skirball by car. Nobody will walk to that place--ever, ever . So what does that mean? It means you have to create a sense of place, rather than being able to hook onto a place that exists.”

Herscher acknowledges that the Skirball won’t see much foot traffic, but center officials are in discussion with the MTA about routing public buses to both the Getty and the Skirball. The center has extensive plans to bring schoolchildren in for visits, and Herscher even hopes to run buses from areas where many senior citizens live--say, the Fairfax district--to make sure older people feel welcomed.

And the kids will be asked to explore their real roots--prehistoric humans. In one of the Skirball’s many courtyards, children will go on “archeological digs” in which they will unearth replicas of ancient artifacts.

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Herscher is the son of German immigrants who settled in San Jose--with $900 to their name--in the mid-1950s after fleeing Germany for kibbutz life in Palestine in 1935. His wife, Myna Meshul Herscher, a clinical psychologist, is of Eastern European immigrant stock. Herscher hopes that tracking the Jewish American story will engender more empathy for the current waves of immigration to Los Angeles from all over the world.

“I wanted to emphasize how much we have in common, and not just through the museum, but through every program that will take place throughout this facility. I think it’s wonderful that this nation welcomes immigrants and I am angered that there are thoughts of limiting that immigration.”

Herscher, a UC Berkeley graduate who there founded “Cal Camp” for underprivileged kids, came to Los Angeles to Hebrew Union College to earn his rabbinate, a pursuit which he describes as “not theologically driven . . . though I have never held a congregation, I still feel that being a rabbi allowed me to deepen my knowledge of my own story, and to become a storyteller.”

Ordained in 1970, Herscher has remained on the faculty of the college as a professor of American Jewish history, and is dean of faculty at the Los Angeles campus and executive vice president of the global Hebrew Union College. Through the college, he met Audrey and Jack Skirball. “I think we honor the memory of Jack Skirball . . . he was a very proud Jew, and a very proud American,” Herscher said. “He would often say: ‘I am both 4,000 years old and 300 years old. I think that is what we are trying to do here.”

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