Boston’s Hebrew College, the 82-year-old center of secular Jewish studies, plans to open the doors of a new rabbinical school in September, adding to the handful of Jewish independent ordaining institutions in the United States. The new program will likely create competition for students among New York-based seminaries.
The move by Hebrew College, which has about 400 students enrolled in undergraduate and graduate programs in Jewish studies and Jewish education, is being welcomed in some quarters and criticized in others.
"We’re doing this in response to the rather large number of students at Hebrew College who want to go to rabbinical school but aren’t in a position to pick up and move" to New York, said Rabbi David Gordis, president of the college.
He anticipates admitting eight or 10 students for the first, "pilot" year of the rabbinical school program, he said. "We’ve had 17 students already express interest, without even inviting applications."
It will be a consciously transdenominational program, Gordis told The Jewish Week in an exclusive interview, focusing on preparation for service to "Klal Yisrael," or the Jewish people as a whole.
"We’re not suggesting the demise or irrelevancy of denominations," said Rabbi Gordis, himself a Conservative rabbi who began his career teaching at the movement’s flagship institution, the Jewish Theological Seminary. "We are aware of the growing energies of programs which are transdenominational. The ideal way of training people is in a Klal Yisrael setting."
Rabbi Joel Meyers, head of the 1,500-member Conservative movement Rabbinical Assembly, of which Rabbi Gordis is a member, criticized that notion.
"I don’t believe that there is a need for this within the Jewish community," he told The Jewish Week. "At this moment, all of the seminaries of all of the movements train rabbis to work in the Jewish community with Jewish people wherever they find themselves on the religious spectrum.
"To say that there’s need for another seminary that has no identity in terms of its religious ideology just doesn’t make much sense today."
The new rabbinical school will attempt to maintain the delicate balance of being a clergy-training program based in a non-religious, albeit Jewish, setting.
"The large group of Jews who identify strongly Jewishly but not religiously is clearly growing," said Rabbi Gordis. "One function of this institution has been to provide a place for those who have not been clearly attracted to the pietistic atmosphere of the synagogue to come here and not have to buy into that other dimension.
"The program will be embedded in this institution, and Hebrew College is not a religious institution," Rabbi Gordis said. "We will not become a seminary."
That, says Rabbi Meyers, is not a viable approach to training rabbis. "To be a rabbi is not to be an academic," he said. "Rabbis must teach and work out of an ideology, out of an understanding how God’s word is interpreted, how halacha [Jewish law] is applied to life. The making of a rabbi is a complex interaction of religious community, of teachers and of fellow students, none of which will really be of the same level at a secular institution as it would be as a religious seminary."
"I understand that there are people who have real concerns" about the new rabbinical school, said Rabbi Gordis. "But the community requires new sources of energy, new ways of generating Jewish passion. This is a natural step for us to take."
A rabbinical training program has been under consideration by the college for three years, and in the works for the past eight months, said Rabbi Gordis. The college moved to a new campus last year in Newton, Mass., just a short drive from Brandeis University in one direction and Harvard in the other.
His goal for the rabbinical school is to make it "a pluralistic, diverse community which helps each student clarify their own religious position and move toward confidence and competence to teach in an informed way," said Rabbi Gordis.
It will not be close, theologically speaking, to any of the existing seminaries. He hopes to take what he views as the best from each of them: professional skill development from the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and a focus on scholarship like that at JTS and at Yeshiva University, and bring them together in Boston, he said.
Hebrew College will expect its students to be observant in a "traditional" Jewish way, he said, "but we won’t be checking their tzitzit."
Unlike JTS, however, it will admit openly gay and lesbian students, Rabbi Gordis said. He also hopes to attract some of the young female Torah scholars who are not able to pursue ordination within the Orthodox world, he said.
The transdenominational approach being embraced by Hebrew College is nothing new for another rabbinical school. The Academy for the Jewish Religion is an independent rabbi and cantor-training institution based in the Bronx, and was established in 1956.
The creation of a new ordaining institution "is another indication of how important it is to have rabbinical schools that are pluralistic in nature," said Rabbi Cherie Koller-Fox, interim president of The Academy, which is located in Riverdale on the campus of the College of Mount Saint Vincent.
Founders of the earliest rabbinical schools intended to educate students from varying theological perspectives, she said. Isaac Leeser, who in 1867 created the very first on American soil, Philadelphia’s Maimonides College, "called for an adjective-less Judaism," she said.
The Academy has ordained 100 people, she said. It caters to second-career students, many of whom commute into New York for its condensed, part-time program from around the country. Eighty students are currently enrolled at the New York campus and another 40 are at The Academy’s Los Angeles branch.
For the Conservative movement’s JTS, concern about the new rabbinical school isn’t so much around competition for students as it is competition for other resources.
"People pick where they want to go" to rabbinical school, said Rabbi Meyers. "Their choice will really depend on how one sees their commitment to Conservative Judaism and what they see as a value in a seminary education."
But "there might be competition for things like funds and volunteer loyalties, because after all, some of the people associated with this venture are Conservative rabbis."
The Academy is the place most likely to face competition for students. But even though some of those currently studying there commute from Boston, Rabbi Koller-Fox isn’t worried.
"There is such a shortage of rabbis, and so many people who want to go to rabbinical school. We’ll keep training wonderful people in New York and they’ll train wonderful people in Boston," she said. Establishment of their rabbinical school "is a healthy thing."