This past December, the Board of Hebrew College in Newton, Massachusetts elected its first woman president, Rabbi Sharon Cohen Anisfeld. Anisfeld will oversee an institution approaching its centennial that confers a wide range of degrees, including rabbinic and cantorial ordination. She will take on the challenge of balancing Hebrew College’s pluralism with the varied opinions and levels of observance within the institution while “shaping an overall renewed vision for the college.” In a recent interview with Tablet, Anisfeld reminisced about the early influences that led her to the rabbinate, addressed the joys and challenges of leading a school of Hebrew College’s scope and reputation and mused about becoming Hebrew College’s first woman president.
Growing up, Anisfeld knew she wanted to be a rabbi. Her parents were active in a large Reform congregation in Rochester, New York, and Anisfeld recalls their deep connection to Judaism. “My mother was born in Haifa and came to Rochester as a young child. She was very drawn to Jewish literature and had a strong personal connection with God. My father was emotionally connected to prayer, and I loved going to services with him. My parents were unusual in that community in terms of the depth of their Jewish connection.”
Throughout her teen and early adult years, Anisfeld’s interest in becoming a rabbi steadily grew. As an undergraduate at Brown University, she expressed her Judaism through community building and social activism. She says that work was deeply connected to her identity as a Jew. One of the pivotal turning points in her life happened during a brief stint in Nicaragua in the early 1980s with a group called the Martin Luther Brigade. Anisfeld recalled, “I was in Managua watching Dr. King’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech and remember suddenly having a powerful sense of the way in which King’s vision and work were coming from such a profound place of love and connection to America. I knew that I felt that love and connection with the Jewish people. I wanted my own work in the world to flow from that place of love.”
Soon after, Anisfeld enrolled in the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College where she received her ordination in 1990. “My Jewish path has been significantly influenced by all denominations. There is the Reform community in which I grew up and the Orthodox community in which my husband grew up. The Conservative movement influenced me in college and trained many of my closest rabbinic colleagues and friends. And of course, there is the Reconstructionist movement in which I was ordained. All of these movements—and other non-denominational expressions of Jewish life—have enriched me.”
Anisfeld’s passion for pluralism was solidified during her years as a Hillel rabbi at Tufts, Yale, and Harvard, her summers as a faculty member for the Bronfman Youth Fellowships in Israel, and her eleven-year tenure as dean of Hebrew College’s rabbinical school. “I feel constrained in any one ideological frame. Judaism is much bigger than that.” For Anisfeld, this wide embrace of Judaism is one of the joys of leading a large pluralistic institution, and she experiences its pluralism as a crucial expression of diversity. “I love being at Hebrew College because we’re not bound to a party line. People are searching and trying to be as honest as possible about their spiritual lives and their Jewish commitments. They are compelled to ask themselves and each other: Why do I live my Jewish life in this particular way? Why is a certain value important to me, or why am I resistant to this particular practice?”
There are of course challenges in leading a pluralistic institution. Anisfeld, however, sees the most challenging tensions as those related to differing political views rather than differing religious practices. “The core struggle,” she says, “is how to balance our commitment to matters of deep conviction and principle on the one hand, with our commitment to depolarizing and living with difference and diversity on the other hand?” For Anisfeld it’s about humanizing personal interactions. “How do I best remember my own humanity and the humanity of the person in front of me? That is the anchor we need to hold onto while doing that dance between competing values.”
As for being the first woman to lead an institution of Hebrew College’s visibility, Anisfeld sees her historical presidency as an opportunity to invite all people, particularly younger generations, to the tables of Jewish learning and leadership. “What is very meaningful to me about being the first woman in this role is the extent to which my own leadership expands people’s images of what a leader can look like and what leadership itself can look like. It’s expanding the sense of what is possible.”
Her immediate agenda for Hebrew College is not only to revitalize the institution’s core mission of Jewish literacy and leadership but also “to double down on pluralism, which is sorely needed in our world today.” With that goal in mind, she has launched a transition process that will “create a greater sense of shared values, and an institutional culture that reflects our shared values. There will be an organizational structure and programmatic agenda that promotes integration, alignment, efficiency and sustainability.”
In her new job, Anisfeld will continue to bring the things she is best known for—her love of Torah; her love of the Hebrew language; her love of poetry “and its capacity to hold paradox and complexity with beauty;” and her love of people and the stories they carry.