JTS head lays out more ecumenical future
The Jewish Theological Seminary.(Wikipedia)
In March, Arnold Eisen, the chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary—which is the intellectual heart of Conservative Judaism—gave a blunt interview to Manfred Gerstenfeld of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs in which he admitted that his movement suffers from what marketers might describe as a crisis of brand identity. “When I speak throughout the United States to Conservative Jews, many of them do not know what the movement’s message is,” he said. “Even some rabbis complain that they are not able to convey its essence to their congregants. Some seem not to know it themselves.”
This morning, during commencement at JTS’s Upper Manhattan campus, I witnessed Eisen confirm that he is on a mission to reverse the prevailing view that the Conservative movement is on the wane. “This moment offers not only unprecedented challenge but unprecedented opportunity,” he said in his address. He pledged to position his school not just as a hub for people who identify as Conservatives, but for “the religious center.”
Who’s that, we wonder? Well, Eisen wasn’t quite clear about his definitions, but it apparently includes anyone in New York who’s interested in Judaism: Full-time students and part-time students “eager for Jewish learning and Jewish wisdom” will learn together at newly developed continuing education classes. And he was clear that JTS’s umbrella will now extend not just to Jews but to people of other faiths, particularly Christians and Muslims, whose clerics are going to be welcomed not just into public policy debates at JTS but into training in things like providing pastoral care.
These are general principles; what about specifics? Last week, Eisen outlined six core principles that will guide the school’s mission going forward. He elaborated, a bit, this morning on what that will mean: more interdisciplinary classes, more practical training for future clergy, and more continuing education, especially for professional staff at Jewish organizations. It will also mean more targeted focus on shaping how day schools and summer camps teach Jewish principles, and—you knew it was coming—“the revitalization of synagogue worship.” For more, I guess we’ll have to wait for the prospectus.
An interesting thing to note, especially in light of Peter Beinart’s powerful new essay about the future of American Zionism: Eisen was clear that he was speaking to American Jews, as Americans. Israel came up twice, once in a mention of the need for “creative thinking” about the Israel-Diaspora relationship (especially, we imagine, in light of the new conversion bill making its way through Israel’s Knesset), and once in explicit reference to the “inescapable tension between our focus on North American Jewry and significant involvement in the State and society of Israel.”
But to the new graduates, American Jews or otherwise, he said this: “You will no longer be enacting the hyphen in your identity by walking up and down Broadway” and exhorted them to go out into the wider world and do good.
Full speech after the jump. (more…)