I recently had the great pleasure to meet Devorah Lieberman, University of La Verne’s first Jewish and first female President in the university’s 129-year history. Guided by Jewish values, President Lieberman finds many fundamental points of intersection between Jewish tradition and her leadership role within the University. I sat down with President Lieberman to talk about her career, Jewish life on campus, the proliferating campus BDS movement, and educational adaptations made because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Daniel Levine: Please tell us a bit about your background and how you came to be the President of University of La Verne.
President Lieberman: I grew up in Covina where I lived through high school. I attended Mount San Antonio College and then left Southern California for my BA at Humboldt State, my MA at San Diego State and lived for five years in Europe before finally completing my doctorate at the University of Florida. I spent many years teaching in a variety of universities before becoming a provost at a Wagner College in New York City. I received a call in 2010 from a search firm that was tasked with looking for a new president of University of La Verne. It was sheer serendipity that after 40 years I ended up at a university only five miles from where I grew up.
The University of La Verne was founded in 1891 by the Church of the Brethren and while the university is no longer affiliated with the Church, many of the underlying values that the university retained are values that directly speak to me as a Jew. This is one of the main reasons why I was driven to accept the position. The school is grounded in life-long learning, diversity and inclusivity, community and civic engagement, and ethical decision making—ideas that we see throughout the Jewish history and our Jewish community.
DL: You mentioned that many of the values of the university align with your values as a Jew. Would you mind telling us a bit about your Jewish upbringing and how it still plays a role in your life today?
President Lieberman: I was raised in a Jewish household within the Conservative movement. My parents were raised in New York, my father’s family coming from Russia during the Pogroms and my mother’s family arriving before the Holocaust.
Judaism has always had a presence in my life—the values and traditions above all else. I believe strongly in Tikun Olam and that there’s something bigger than ourselves that we need to work towards. It’s actually, as I said earlier, why I chose to serve as President at a university that had similar values. We must dedicate ourselves to something bigger than ourselves. Make decisions that better everyone around you.
Currently, my husband and I are members of Temple Beth Israel of Pomona and the amazing Rabbi and Cantor are also involved in our lives and in university life. They come on various Jewish holidays to help bolster Jewish life on campus and add to our wonderful interfaith community.
DL: What is the campus Jewish community like?
President Lieberman: We have a visible and progressive Hillel on campus and in general our campus is a place that truly values interfaith. The more we learn about each other, the more empathy we will have for each other—cultivating an environment of respect for difference.
We just opened a new building called the Ludwick Center for Spirituality, Cultural Understanding and Community Engagement. The Ludwick Center fosters cultural understanding and community engagement and it’s also the location for our big Jewish communal events such as our annual Kristallnacht commemoration.
DL: One of the major stories from the American Jewish public sphere over the last couple of years has been the rise of boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement and extreme anti-Israel sentiment on college campuses. Would you be willing to comment on this both from a campus specific point of view and also your overall feelings about the national phenomenon?
President Lieberman: On this question I have both a personal answer and a professional answer. Personally, I feel very strongly that any student should be able to study in any country they wish and that any researcher can collaborate with anyone from any country. When BDS started proliferating throughout campuses in 2011, my daughter was a student at another university at the time and I asked her, “How would you feel if you wanted to study in Israel and your school said we don’t approve of the politics so you can’t go?” She responded that she felt she should be able to study in ANY country she wished, as long as it didn’t pose a security threat. Following that conversation, my daughter and I actually co-wrote an article for the Huffington Post on this exact issue arguing that BDS undermines many of the collaborative ideas that higher education and the academe were created to bolster.
As the President of a university I am a supporter of free speech, academic freedom, and the right for students to advocate for any issue they wish. While I will not personally support BDS, I will not stop any student, faculty, or staff from advocating for their own opinions.
At the University of La Verne, I do not see much anti-Israel activity, especially as compared to other campuses. I credit this to our strong inter-faith foundation. People in our community recognize that while they have an important voice they don’t have the only voice—a view that runs counter to the BDS movement in their desire to dominate the conversation.
DL: We are talking in the midst of an unprecedented time in history due to the coronavirus pandemic. How has your university responded?
President Lieberman: I am prouder of my university than ever before! On March 11 we realized that COVID-19 was very serious and posed a health threat to our entire campus. Within just one week we were able to completely mobilize online and remote for employees. Students moved out of residence halls (except for those who had nowhere to go) and made sure all of our 8,000 students and all faculty were set up for successful distance learning. Our IT Department worked around the clock to ensure that everything would work out. And while it hasn’t been perfect, it worked out better than I would have ever expected.
Moving forward, we announced on April 20 that summer classes will be online. Incoming undergraduate students will have the ability to take a free course this summer on a topic related to the virus and we are working to create space and places [so that] our students are both physically and mentally safe upon their return to our campuses. The Lewis Center and the Ludwick Center are both offering virtual mindfulness, meditation and yoga sessions and the university provides mental health professionals to talk to anyone who is having a difficult time. Furthermore, we have decided that for the fall, which we do expect will be face to face, the residence halls will provide as many single rooms as possible.
DL: Is there anything else that you’d like to share with the community?
President Lieberman: None of us will ever experience anything like this coronavirus situation again in our lives. What I’m working hard on is to not dwell on what we have lost and rather to highlight what I’ve found: family, introspection, purpose of higher education and how to better serve the community. The virus can, in some way, be an asset as it forces us to contemplate all of these important things.
In a way this is also a very Jewish idea of always, even in the toughest of times, trying to find purpose and motivating us to better the world around us.
DANIEL LEVINE is a contributing writer to JLife Magazine and A Senior Jewish Educator for Hillel. His email is Dlevine21@gmail.com.