Teachable Moment

The limits of a cross-denominational partnership aimed at helping Jewish educators

By Marissa Brostoff|June 4, 2010 7:00 AM


Last week, each of the three universities associated with the major American Jewish denominations received an $11 million grant from the Jim Joseph Foundation [1], a San Francisco-based Jewish philanthropy. The grants to the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College [2], the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary [3], and the Modern Orthodox movement’s Yeshiva University [4] are earmarked for their respective Masters programs in Jewish education—a priority at all three institutions thanks to the current emphasis on youth outreach across much of the organized Jewish world.

There’s only one catch: Each institution must use $1 million of its grant money on joint teacher-training endeavors with the other two schools.

If that sounds like an obvious request, you probably don’t remember the interdenominational Jewish politics of the recent past. During the 1980s and 1990s, the three major synagogue movements were widely perceived as being at loggerheads [5]. Movement leaders and observers seem to agree that, in the past decade or so, tensions between the denominations have eased—led in part by a warming of the relationships between the heads of HUC, JTS, and YU, all central institutions within their movements.

But the relative ease with which this arrangement was made may less reflect a burst of newfound harmony among disparate monoliths as much as a loss of power experienced by each. During the period in which relations have improved, major Jewish community donors have eschewed giving to the denominations at all, often contributing instead to robust nondenominational organizations like Birthright [6] and Hillel [7] that target often-unaffiliated youth—and where such “megadonors” also have more control. What the Jim Joseph Foundation may have done is found a creative way to harness the decreased power of the denominations—by combining it.

“They’ve all been hit, but one of the ways to recover your health is to cooperate, save a few bucks, and ideally augment your quality,” said Charles Edelsberg, the Jim Joseph Foundation’s executive director. Edelsberg maintained that his organization is basically neutral on the issue of interdenominational collaboration: The point of the mandate, he said, was to reduce “unnecessary duplication of effort” that would waste the foundation’s dollars; more cooperation between the universities “would be great if it happened, but it’s not something we’re going to measure” when evaluating the success of the grant program, he added.

But the mere existence of the grant-sharing stipulations suggests that the foundation may have an agenda vis-à-vis the movements. “The Jim Joseph grant reflects a general belief among major donors that the denominational differences need to be overcome,” said Steven M. Cohen, a professor of sociology at HUC.

But for those with a strong commitment to the denominations remaining distinct—either for ideological or, for those employed by one of the synagogue movements, professional reasons—harmony between the movements is not necessarily a good thing. That’s especially true for the right-wing of the modern Orthodox movement—which is probably why, of the three university leaders, YU president Richard Joel has been the most direct about having to hold his nose while accepting an offer he couldn’t refuse. Far from celebrating the spirit of the new partnership, Joel took pains to minimize its significance in an interview with Tablet Magazine. “There’s no joint programming involved in any of this,” he said. “There are profound philosophic and doctrinal differences between Orthodoxy and liberal Judaism and this doesn’t represent any change in those differences.” Moreover, he added, “I don’t believe that people from different orientations in Judaism speaking together makes any kind of statement legitimizing or delegitimizing each other.”

Joel himself came out of one of the most successful nondenominational Jewish organizations, the campus movement Hillel, which he presided over for 14 years. But even if he personally understands the wisdom of that model, much of his YU constituency would likely recoil at the idea of working in significant ways with other denominations. “It’s very important that Richard Joel not appear to be moving toward a liberal position that’s untenable for them,” said Adam Ferziger, a historian at Bar-Ilan University in Israel who studies Jewish denominationalism. “It’s a very tough tightrope.”

Ellenson and Eisen, with their more liberal—and, maybe more to the point, more apathetic—memberships, are at greater ease talking up the collaboration. Ellenson went so far as to disavow what he called the “financial carrot” completely in an interview with Tablet Magazine, instead describing the collaboration as “a genuine reflection of a strong religious and ideological commitment to the value of k’lal Yisrael [8].” Eisen, fittingly occupying a tenuous middle ground, sounded resigned to if not wildly enthusiastic about the new facts on the ground. “I think we’re in a moment where keeping Jews, especially young Jews, involved, is more important than keeping us involved in particular denominations,” he said. “So, all of us recognize this and see why cooperation is necessary because of this mood.”

But, some observers note, these leaders also have a stake in not letting collaboration go too far: As they become more and more ideologically indistinguishable from each other, they run the greater risk of losing their separate identities. The Conservative movement in particular, poised shakily between the other two movements, has been accused from within its own ranks of melding with its Reform counterparts—a fear that has sometimes been stoked by collaborative efforts between JTS and HUC. Earlier this year, for instance, the downsizing of JTS’s cantorial school [9] led some students and faculty to wonder whether their program and HUC’s—which already share some courses—were going to merge. But it seems unlikely that either school—especially JTS, which is reportedly millions of dollars in debt—could have afforded to refuse $11 million even if it had wanted to.

It’s no coincidence that the collaboration between the universities will be directed at the level of their education Masters programs—first because the Jim Joseph Foundation’s focus on young adults is typical of megadonor-sponsored Jewish initiatives, but also because of what the education programs lack: the kind of inextricable relationship to theology and halacha that the universities’ rabbinic and cantorial programs do have.

According to Edelsberg, the schools have talked about using some of their shared grant money to create joint training in experiential education, but even that prospect has not gotten past the discussion stage. And optimists hoping for a slide from pedagogical collaboration on educational matters to collaboration on rabbinical ones should keep their hopes in check. While JTS and HUC offer some joint seminars for rabbinical students, Joel put the kibosh on such prospects involving YU.

“It’s counterintuitive to a contemporary liberal aesthetic,” he said. “But I’m trained as a lawyer. Some things are simply not negotiable.”

Find this story online: http://tabletmag.com/jewish-life-and-religion/35289/teachable-moment