Leading Conservative Rabbi Moving Into Mentor Role

Rabbi Gordon Tucker looks to next phase after 25 years on the pulpit.

“What’s much more important” than the Conservative movement losing members “is what we’ve produced,” says White Plains Rabbi Gordon Tucker.

For 25 years at Temple Israel Center in White Plains, Rabbi Gordon Tucker has practiced the art of the possible.

“It’s possible to be intellectually open and very welcoming of, and accommodating [to], different Jewish views and still be committed to the continuation of tradition, the Jewish people and the State of Israel,” he told The Jewish Week. “We’ve demonstrated that it’s possible.”

It’s the mantra of Conservative Judaism — that it’s possible to look to the future and yet be tied to the past, to feel commanded to uphold Jewish law yet bend to the demands of contemporary life.

When Rabbi Tucker retired this summer, the Conservative movement was in a very different place from when he was ordained at the Jewish Theological Seminary in 1975. In the 1970s, nearly 40 percent of Jews identified as Conservative. By 2013 that number had fallen to 18 percent.

And so practicing the art of the possible became more difficult. But the numbers, Rabbi Tucker asserts, don’t tell the entire story.

As he sees it, lack of affiliation reflects “changes in our society in general. We’re not a joining society anymore. … What’s much more important is what we’ve produced. Look at the independent minyanim and the study places — if you look at what we produce to energize the next generation, so many people who are staffing Jewish studies programs and institutions have degrees from Conservative institutions, and were raised in Conservative synagogues,” he said. “It may sound defensive, but I don’t mean it in a defensive way. I don’t go to sleep worrying about how little we’ve produced.” (His son, Rabbi Ethan Tucker, is president and co-founder of Yeshivat Hadar, a leading egalitarian learning center in Manhattan.)

This will be Rabbi Tucker’s first High Holidays off the bima in a generation.

Rabbi Tucker has been thinking seriously about Conservative Judaism for a long time. Besides authoring many articles on Jewish thought — and the recently published “Heavenly Torah,” a translation of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s three-volume work on Hebrew theology — Rabbi Tucker contributed his expertise to some of the thorniest questions facing the Conservative movement. When he served as assistant to JTS’ then-Chancellor Gerson Cohen, Rabbi Tucker was executive director for the commission for the study on women’s ordination. For 25 years he served on the Rabbinical Assembly Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, was chairman of the board of the Masorti Foundation for Conservative Judaism in Israel, and he continues to serve as a member of its executive committee.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Rabbi Tucker has a nuanced response to the complex and challenging issue of intermarriage.

He said, “We are in a condition today where intermarriage is not a result of a rejection of Judaism. It’s still a challenge, obviously, in terms of Jewish continuity. We have to change the paradigm and not see it as a betrayal. These are people who want our involvement. We have to find a way to be present as the Jewish community and even as rabbis. I can’t just pretend it’s not happening. We need to find a way to talk about this as an ongoing discussion as to how we do this.”

As a pulpit rabbi, Rabbi Tucker has had ample opportunity to put his ideas into practice.

He grew up in the Inwood section of Manhattan and earned his bachelor’s degree from Harvard and a Ph.D. in philosophy from Princeton before his ordination at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in 1975.

“I was training people to go out and be rabbis, but hadn’t done it myself,” said Rabbi Tucker, who served as dean of the Seminary for eight years before taking the pulpit position at Temple Israel Center. As a congregational rabbi, he found it fulfilling to be “involved in people’s spiritual lives, and struggles, being a part in the creation of souls.” He’s been deeply touched by “moments with individual congregants and families,” both joyful and sorrowful, “and have found it a privilege to being involved in that way.”

His example has had an impact beyond TIC, and Westchester.

“Intellectual rabbis thought they couldn’t be happy or respected for one’s learning in a congregation,” said JTS’ Chancellor Arnold Eisen. “Rabbi Tucker’s example helps attract and retain rabbis. With Tucker, they see that learning matters.”

Small wonder that, given his dedication to education, scholarship and the TIC community, Temple Israel Center has launched a fund named in his honor that has already raised $1 million to renovate the current Beit Midrash but also support Jewish thought, learning and culture.

As Rabbi Shira Milgrom, of White Plains’ Kol Ami Reform synagogue, said in an email, “Congregants rallied to create a phenomenal endowment for Jewish learning in Gordon’s honor, a tribute to the power of Jewish learning he has bequeathed to them.”

Even though Rabbi Tucker has stepped away from his role as TIC’s senior rabbi (he’s now rabbi emeritus), he and his wife, Amy Cohn, aren’t going anywhere. He plans to have more opportunities to write, take on some short-term teaching assignments and become more involved in the Masorti movement. And while he won’t be on the pulpit for the High Holidays for the first time in a generation, he plans to serve as a mentor to younger rabbis and rabbinical students, and in that way to continue to pass on what’s possible in a changing moment for the Conservative movement.

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