Home February 2011 How Far We’ve Come

How Far We’ve Come

In 1998, Arie Katz and his new bride Susan Seely moved from Arie’s Boston – with its plethora of Jewish educational opportunities for adults – to Susan’s Orange County, which Arie found virtually bereft of such opportunities. Only 31 years old, Arie almost immediately sought a number of avenues to create an adult Jewish education program, including an attempt to unite the educational offerings of Orange County’s Jewish congregations.

But Katz is impatient, and moving existing establishments was slow.  Hearing about an adult education program called Community Scholar Program that was active in Houston, Texas, he contacted the program, decided such a project would be ideal for Orange County and single-handedly – with the encouragement of Susan – founded the Orange County Community Scholar Program (CSP) in the fall of 2001.

Now, 10 years later, CSP has evolved as one of the most outstanding such programs in the nation.  County-wide and cross-denominational – Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist and Orthodox – CSP brings to Orange County the best Jewish minds in the world throughout the year.

To celebrate CSP’s 10th anniversary, Katz and his family – Susan and their daughters Emma, 12½ , and Clara, 8½ , who grew up with CSP – will be honored at a gala reception at 7 p.m. on Saturday, March 5, at Congregation B’nai Israel, 2111 Bryan Avenue, Tustin.

Open to the entire community with a charge of only $36 for an entire family to make the reception available to all, the evening will include a Havdalah service, refreshments, music by Dale Schatz and Lava Los Manos and presentations by Rabbis Elie Spitz, Peter Levy and Arnold Rachlis and by Shalom Elcott, president and CEO of the Orange County Jewish Federation & Family Services.

Event chair Wendy Arenson and her committee invite underwriters for the evening and are assembling a 10-year memory book to which they invite tributes.

Katz admits that he never anticipated how far and how fast the program he initiated 10 years ago would grow. His initial intention was to emulate Houston’s One-Month Scholar program, in which an outstanding Jewish scholar would be brought to Orange County for a full month of presentations.

Katz began with 20 friends who contributed $1,000 each, plus a contribution from Jewish Federation Orange County (now Jewish Federation & Family Services). With this base, he rounded up a total of 44 founders – 43 families and individuals and the Samueli Foundation – and the program took off.

The One-Month Scholar-in-Residence Program, begun in 2002, has presented world-renowned scholars who stay in the community for a one-month period each year. The scholars, in return for an honorarium and expenses, are offered to a variety of local synagogues, universities and institutions for low cost, high-quality programming.

The one-month program is structured around six-to-ten synagogue appearances, an opening and closing lecture, a series of courses co-sponsored by the Bureau of Jewish Education, one-to-two university lectures and several private patron programs.

From the beginning Katz energized Orange County with his selection of the first one-month scholar-in-residence, Avigdor Shinan, professor of Hebrew literature at Hebrew University, Jerusalem.  The 2011 scholar, in residence from mid-January to mid-February, was Stephen Berk, author and professor of history at Union College in Schenectady, NY.

Still, Katz wanted more. “I felt that waiting all year for a single month was too long. I wanted something before and after the one-month scholar.” Thus came the Summer Scholar-in-Residence Program and the Annual Pre-High Holiday Program.

The Summer Scholar-in-Residence Program, since 2003, brings outstanding Jewish scholars to Orange County for three to four days. Coming this year from July 10 to 14, is Michael Fishbane, professor of Jewish studies at the University of Chicago and long-time professor at Brandeis University.

The Annual Pre-High Holiday Program, also since 2003, hosts a pre-High Holiday event in the community “to prepare participants for the upcoming holidays.” The speaker last year was the world-renowned Rabbi Joseph Telushkin.

Katz wanted still more. So CSP hosts salons throughout the year – three to four programs with 30 to 40 people in a variety of Orange County venues, frequently private homes. Rather than importing scholars, Katz invites scholars who are visiting the region.

According to Katz, “The goal of the salons is to offer intimate learning opportunities with top scholars and authors to bring together community leaders and build cross-institutional understanding and cooperation.” Thus far, since its inception, Katz has presented nearly 100 scholars at the salons.

As Katz’s family grew, he decided to involve families in Jewish learning, and so established the Memorial Day Weekend Retreat; the CSP Dads and Kids Camping program; and the CSP Family Camping program. This year’s family camp is scheduled from July 10 to 14 at the UCLA Bruin Woods facility in Lake Arrowhead and will present humorist Rabbi Moshe Waldoks of Temple Beth Zion, Brookline, Massachusetts.

Then there is the annual adult retreat, at a fashionable Southern California resort with a scholar in residence; Shabbat Alive, an annual summer program; and frequent musical programs with well-known Jewish musicians and bands.

“A study partner in the world of traditional Jewish learning is called a havrutah,” said Rabbi Elie Spitz, spiritual leader at Congregation B’nai Israel, who as Katz’s rabbi has closely observed the development of CSP. “The word havrutah is linked to the Hebrew for both ‘friend’ and ‘to band.’ The experience of learning together and exchanging ideas forges strong connections.  For a decade, CSP led by Arie Katz has enabled our community to learn together across denominational and institutional lines.  We are indeed bonded to each other as friends due to the success of CSP,” Rabbi Spitz stated.

“Arie has great taste in presenters, bringing into our midst some of the finest Jewish educators and singers in the world,” Rabbi Spitz continued. “The retreats and camping trips have allowed participants to immerse in Shabbat and the beauty of the natural world. Arie has shown how one man’s vision, attention to detail, and desire to engage with others can transform and elevate an entire community.”

So how does Katz do it? Is he a retired philanthropist with nothing but time and money on his hands? Not so. Katz — born in South Africa and educated at Princeton, a year at Hebrew University in Jerusalem and Georgetown Law School — is a working attorney. He is senior vice president and general counsel for L.A. Fitness International in Irvine.

For CSP, Katz has a volunteer board, no office and no staff. “I want to spend money on programs, not on overhead,” he commented. But how does he manage his time? “People need balance besides work,” he said. “Every time we have a good program, it rejuvenates me.”

Financially, CSP has approximately 900 supporters who contribute on set levels: $180, $360, $540, $1,500, $1,800, $2,500, $5,000, $10,000 and $25,000. CSP’s annual budget ranges from $70,000 to $100,000, and everyone is invited to become a part of this organization.

For more information, go to CSP’s website occsp.org and listen to a rendition of “Look How Far We’ve Come.” Yes, Arie Katz and CSP have certainly come far.

Martin A. Brower is a contributing writer to Orange County Jewish Life and is the author of Orange County Jew: A Memoir available through Amazon.com.

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