Higher education

Milken school to purchase American Jewish University campus after previous buyer backed out

Deal still pending final approvals but officials say it is likely to go through in coming months; move would significantly increase the size of the day school, which has seen a 15% rise in enrollment in recent years

More than two years after American Jewish University put its 22-acre Familian campus in Bel Air, Calif., up for sale — and more than six months after a deal with an education company abruptly fell through — the university has all but inked a new deal. The nearby Milken Community School, which serves grades 6-12, agreed to purchase the campus, representatives of the two organizations told eJewishPhilanthropy

The deal serves the needs of Milken’s growing student body and allows AJU to ease some of its financial strain while continuing its robust programming, officials said.

The purchase, which was first reported last week by the Jewish Journal, will add 22 acres to the 6.5 existing acres of the community school, which has recently seen its enrollment grow “substantially,” Sarah Shulkind, Milken’s head of school, told eJP. Over the past three years, the number of students has grown from 670 students to 770 students, a 15% increase. This includes a new sixth grade class that was added during the pandemic. 

Shulkind said that both Milken and AJU had agreed not to discuss the terms of the deal, including the purchase price and the exact timeline for finalizing the agreement, although she and AJU President Jeffrey Herbst both estimated that the tentative agreement would be finalized in the next few months. 

Herbst told eJP that there is still some real estate due diligence to be done on the Milken side as well as some transitional issues that have to be addressed. He doesn’t anticipate that AJU programming will be impacted. Even if AJU needs additional room for events after Milken moves in, “we anticipate being able to rent space across Los Angeles,” the university’s president said. This will also enable AJU to be in more places as the Jewish population density changes, he added. 

AJU will continue to operate its second campus, the 2,700-acre Brandeis-Bardin Institute in Simi Valley, Calif. — just over 30 miles from Bel Air and Pico-Robertson — which is a home for some AJU programs, he said. 

It had been reported in the press — but not confirmed by representatives from either party — that the Milken school had put in a $60 million bid to purchase the campus before AJU inked a deal, which later collapsed, with the education company EF Education First. 

The terms of the sale to Milken will allow AJU to lease back part of the university for AJU operations — including the lower campus administrative building and the community mikveh — and remain on the Familian campus for at least three to five years, Herbst told eJP. The move of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies to the Beverly Hills area, announced in May 2023, will proceed as planned.

“A good number of our students and faculty live in this immersive Jewish neighborhood [in Pico-Robertson, the area adjacent to Beverly Hills] and then drive each day to Bel Air and that didn’t make a lot of sense,” Herbst said. 

AJU originally put the Familian campus up for sale in early 2022; later that year, the campus was sold to EF for a reported $65 million. In June 2023, EF exited the deal, citing — in its June 7, 2023 letter to the City of Los Angeles Planning Commission — responses from “adjacent neighbors” who became firmly entrenched in their opposition and communicated in ways that made us increasingly uncomfortable to locate in this Bel-Air neighborhood,” and that it was “crystal clear to us that there are individuals in the neighborhood who do not want international students in their community. This is the first time we have experienced this level of fear and bias – which is, ironically, the very thing that EF’s programs seek to overcome. And while we feel confident that we could have eventually proven our project’s merits, we don’t like to fight our neighbors.”

In conversations after the pending sale to EF, community members expressed concern about the potential erasure of donors who had invested in AJU and had parts of campus dedicated in their names. 

Addressing that issue from the start, Milken “intends to honor the funders who made [AJU] happen,” Shulkind said, many of whom overlap with Milken’s own supporters. 

“This campus was built with Jewish philanthropic dollars,” Shulkind said. “We will do our best to honor those names and their legacy.” 

Herbst told eJP that the sale will alleviate some of the university’s financial burden. AJU, whose budget for 2023-2024 is $26 million, has an $89 million endowment.   

“Not only do we eliminate the drag of maintaining and operating a significant facility, which was underused, but we’re also able to eliminate our mortgage and invest significant amounts in the endowment,” he said. “We think that the overall financial health of the institution will be greatly improved, and then we’ll be announcing programmatic initiatives in the future.”

Shulkind told eJP that she sees the agreement as “a success for Milken and the Jewish community as a whole.” 

“The idea is to be able to serve the community in ways that we haven’t before,” she said. “Right now the agreement is with AJU specifically, but also other organizations that share a purpose and vision for what L.A. looks like in the future.”

As for future collaborations with the AJU community at-large, Shulkind said that there were lots of ideas but no specific plans yet. 

Milken and AJU representatives will be meeting for further in-depth conversations once the agreement is finalized. 

“What’s important is that this is a success story for the Jewish community when we really need one,” she said. “This acquisition is the Los Angeles Jewish community working together — I’m hopeful that’s the focus of what’s celebrated more than the deal points.”

With the sale still in escrow, details of Milken’s use of the campus are in development. But in the short-term, Shulkind said, the campus is beautiful and usable “as is.” It’s even technically walkable from the school’s current campus — roughly a 10-minute walk from the Milken upper school to the Familian campus, crossing over the 405 Interstate. School administration and transportation and safety experts are looking into how students will be able to get back and forth between the campuses safely and efficiently, Shulkind added. 

Even before Milken closed on the campus, the school was in the initial phase of a capital campaign. Over the next several months the campaign will increase efforts to fund the expansion and ensure that the new project does not drive an increase in tuition. “Understandably, parents are anxious about affordability,” Shulkind said. Though she noted that some families have the financial wherewithal to help, and that 40% of students, including students from Ukraine or Israel, or those who are foster children or refugees, receive significant financial aid.

“At Milken we always have an eye on tuition price point,” she said, “we don’t want anyone to not consider Milken [because of the tuition cost]. And at the same time, we want to provide an exceptional education and community experience.”

“This is an important milestone in a long process that we believe will result in a greatly strengthened AJU,” Herbst said.