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October 12, 1984 - Image 17

Resource type:
Text
Publication:
The Detroit Jewish News, 1984-10-12

Disclaimer: Computer generated plain text may have errors. Read more about this.

THE DETROIT JEWISH NEWS

well as the glass-encased Adademy Award he received for
co-producing "Genocide," voted the Best Documentary
Feature at the 1982 ceremonies — surely the first rabbi to
win an Oscar.
"Marvin is half yeshiva, half Disneyland," says one ad-
mirer. "He's fascinated with pinball machines and he
reminds me of a human pinball, careening from one extreme
to the other with lights flashing and bells ringing."
An intense, sharp-featured man, Rabbi Hier is, in man-
ner and style, pure New York. He is quick-tongued, disar-
mingly forthright and outspoken. (Of the many people in-
terviewed for this article, he was the only one whose every
comment was "on the record?)
Rabbi Hier feels he has nothing to hide. He has ac-
complished a great deal in a short time, far beyond even
his own fertile imagination, and he is proud of what he has
done. He is aware of it all, the praise from world figures and
the criticism from Jewish professionals and academics —
much of it muted and behind his back. He is, he says, a man
of action and he does not worry about his critics. "They're
jealous," he says. "We're Orthodox, we're mavericks and we're
successful."
The multi-million dollar Wiesenthal Center began as a
modest plan for a yeshiva in Los Angeles. Rabbi Hier was
in Israel with his family in 1976, on sabbatical from his Or-
thodox pulpit in Vancouver, British Columbia, where he had
served for 16 years. He was growing bored with the rab-
binate, and wanted to become more involved in education.
"I was intrigued by Los Angeles," he recalled. "Such a large,
wealthy Jewish community but a place where Orthodox
Judaism hadn't come of age, hadn't even scratched the sur-
face. My dream was to build a yeshiva there."
Not that his would be the first. Yeshiva University, the
New York-based Orthodox institution, had launched a West
Coast branch, based in Los Angeles, but it failed. "An L.A.
institution couldn't be run from New York," Rabbi Hier
concluded.
Upon his return to Vancouver, he won the financial sup-
port of his most illustrious congregant, Samuel Belzberg,
who along with his brothers heads up major financial cor-
porations in Vancouver and Beverly Hills, making them one
of the wealthiest Jewish families in North America.
Samuel Belzberg gave Rabbi her $500,000 and told him
to go to Los Angeles and buy a piece of property for his
proposed yeshiva. "I was a complete novice," says Rabbi
Hier. "I'd never even been involved in buying my own house."
But within 10 days he had visited Los Angeles and put
$200,000 down on a $900,000 vacant building which is now
the site of the Wiesenthal Center complex.
He planned to open a high school as well as post-high
school yeshiva program for students who would divide their
time between 'Almud classes and college studies at one of
several local universities.
Rabbi Hier met with Dr. Norman Lamm, president of
Yeshiva University in New York, and worked out an arrange-
ment whereby the new Los Angeles institution would be
called Yeshiva University of Los Angeles (YULA) but would
be financially independent. "The only affiliation is educa-
tional," explains Rabbi Hier, "in accordance with the Yeshiva
University motto of Ibrah U'Madah (or Ibrah and secular
studies). But there are no financial ties and we have our own
board of trustees."
YULA opened in the fall of 1977 with 20 post-high school
yeshiva students. Seven years later there were some 240 high
school students, 65 post-high school students and an
outreach program that had an impact on thousands of
people.

An Unlikely Marriage In Vienna

"Simon wanted a vibrant center.
He wanted action. So did we."
Rabbi Hier

The concept of a Holocaust museum came to Rabbi flier,
he says, in August,1977, just before his new school open-
ed. "I was having my Shabos chulent (a meat stew) and
telling a friend at the dinner table what a shame it is that
there is no equivalent of a Yad Vashem (Israel's National
Holocaust Museum) in the United States. I realized that
it will never happen unless we do it ourselves. I decided,
let's do it, and then worry about the criticism."
Four days later Rabbi her was on a plane to Vienna
along with Samuel Belzberg's wife, Frances, and Roland
Arnell, an early supporter, to meet with Simon Wiesen-
thal and propose the concept of a Holocaust center to be
named after the famed Nazi hunter. Rabbi Hier had met
Wiesenthal twice before in Vienna during visits the rabbi
had made to Nazi concentration camp sites. He felt that
Wiesenthal had the stature to give his proposed center the
influence and respect it needed.
Wiesenthal thought the Americans had come to offer
him an honorary degree. "We ended up talking for four
straight days," Rabbi Hier said. "Simon told us his sad
tale of how since 1946 he had hoped to create a Holocaust
institute in the United States. He was insistent that any
institution to which he lent his name would have to be
`more than just photos on a wall — walls as silent as
graves,' " Rabbi Hier recalled. "Simon told us that too
many institutions collected Holocaust information and
then, in his words, 'put it in the freezer.' He wanted a
vibrant center, not afraid to speak out on current issues.
He wasn't worried about the Jewish establishment or quiet
diplomacy. He- wanted action. So did we."
And so an unlikely marriage was made in Vienna be-
tween Simon Wiesenthal, a secular, non-Zionist Jew who
devoted his life to the pursuit of Nazi criminals, and Mar-
vin Hier, an Orthodox Zionist who had spent his career
as a pulpit rabbi.
Wiesenthal agreed to lend his name and expertise to the
new center and to donate his vast collection of Nazi-
hunting files to the center upon his death. Rabbi her

Friday, October 12, 1984

The other Holocaust
museum in Los
Angeles, known as
the Martyrs
Memorial and
Museum, was found-
ed by survivors and
is located on the top
floor of the Federa-
tion building.

17

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