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Surprise JTS Choice Signals New Openness

Surprise JTS Choice Signals New Openness

Arnold M. Eisen has 15 months before he starts his new job as chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, but even on the day the appointment was announced, he was making significant changes at the Conservative movement’s flagship institution.

News that he personally favors ordaining openly gay and lesbian rabbis, unlike Rabbi Ismar Schorsch, whom he is succeeding, traveled fast and prompted much discussion, since the topic has divided the movement for years. But perhaps Eisen’s biggest initial impact came from his personal style, leading some to wonder if the culture of JTS and by extension, the Conservative movement, will soon change. JTS has long been seen by some students and faculty as a formal, even distant environment. Eisen will be only the second of seven chancellors in JTS history not to be ordained. Nearly as soon as a formal announcement of the appointment was sent out from Gershon Kekst, JTS’ chairman and head of the chancellor search committee, Eisen sent out his own e-mail to faculty and others, and he signed it “Arnie,” said one recipient. Currently the chair of Stanford University’s religious studies department and professor of Jewish culture and religion there, the 54-year-old Eisen is best known by his first name. And while he is confident, thoughtful and extremely articulate, one could also picture him taking part in a pick-up basketball game as one of the guys.

After shaking hands and chatting with everyone from students to secretaries who came to meet him in the sixth floor conference room at JTS on Monday, it was clear his easygoing manner made an impression.

“He stood there smiling and exuding charm,” said Rabbi Judith Hauptman, a professor of Talmud and rabbinic culture. “This is a kinder, gentler chancellor than what we’re used to,” said Rabbi Hauptman, who has had her differences with Rabbi Schorsch on other issues. “We’re used to coldness around here.”

Added Sarah Chandler, a graduate student: “There was a nice JTS communal feel that I’ve never had before.”

Eisen is a prolific author and is often described as a brilliant scholar of contemporary American Judaism. His publications include “Taking Hold of Torah: Jewish Commitment and Community in America,” and “Rethinking Modern Judaism: Ritual, Commandment, Community.”

A longtime resident of Palo Alto, Calif., he is a member of the Conservative synagogue there. He and his wife, Adriane Leveen, a biblical scholar at Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles, have a daughter in college and a son in high school.

But while his scholarship and warmth are acknowledged, there are some in the Conservative community who question whether Eisen has the proper credentials to head the seminary, particularly at a time of theological strife within the movement about the role of halacha, or Jewish law, as well as financial troubles and congregational ennui. The movement has been losing numbers in recent years to the Reform and Orthodox.

“Let’s face it, I had three strikes against me” from the beginning, Eisen said in an interview with The Jewish Week. “I am not a rabbi, I have never been a major fundraiser and I have never run anything larger than a department. “But watch me,” he said, noting that he was “able to persuade” the search committee, “and they were able to persuade me.”

The man many thought would be tapped for the top JTS post, Rabbi Gordon Tucker, 55, who spent many years at JTS as professor and dean, expressed disappointment. “I’d be crazy not to be,” he said, but noted that he is happy leading his congregation, Temple Israel Center in White Plains, N.Y., where he has served for a dozen years and is under contract until 2018.

Rabbi Tucker was informed of the JTS decision last Friday. When asked if he thought it had anything to do with his well-known support of full inclusion for gays and lesbians in the Conservative movement — a more outspoken position than Eisen’s — Rabbi Tucker paused and said, “I have no basis on which to answer why they chose him and not me.”

Some Rabbis Unhappy Blogs and the e-mail list of Conservative rabbis began buzzing as soon as word of Eisen’s appointment became public. (There were even discussions about why Eisen chose to wear a yarmulke at JTS on Monday only when eating.)

Many of the rabbis were unhappy with the selection of an academic rather than one of their own. “It’s definitely a slap in the face to the rabbinate,” said one New York City pulpit rabbi who asked not to be named. “Because the seminary is so intimately connected with a religious movement, and because the rabbinic role for the movement has been such a big part of this job, the fact that the new chancellor is not [a rabbi] could be read to suggest that it’s not something that is valued.”

Rabbi Joel Meyers, executive vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly, met privately with Eisen on Monday. Afterward, he said, “Professor Eisen was very forthcoming, and said it was also a concern of his that he was not a rabbi, but that when he considered what he might bring to the task, he thought he could bring a perspective about the Jewish community, about the future of the seminary and its role in a way that would be immensely helpful.”

According to Rabbi David Ellenson, president of the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, “It represents a genuinely bold choice on the part of the search committee to choose someone who is not a rabbi.”

However, he warned that Eisen, a colleague and close friend, will face daunting challenges. “As someone who moved from the classroom to the position of president of HUC, I can tell you that there will be a steep learning curve as he adjusts to being an administrator, fundraiser and leader of an institution and a movement. Simultaneously I am certain he possesses all the qualities required to succeed in this position. He has the capability to appeal to a very broad swath of American Jews.”

The fact that Eisen has never led a Conservative institution before is viewed by some as a benefit rather than weakness. Unlike the other candidates for chancellor — who in addition to Rabbi Tucker have included JTS Provost Jack Wertheimer; Rabbi David Wolpe, a Los Angeles pulpit rabbi; and Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, who is dean of the rabbinical school at Los Angeles’ University of Judaism — Eisen has no publicly entrenched ideological views on the issues currently occupying the Conservative movement.

“Arnie is a personality who can transcend many of the intra-Conservative boundaries and transcend Conservative and non-Conservative boundaries,” said Steven M. Cohen, a fellow academic who co-authored the book with Eisen, “The Jew Within: Self, Family and Continuity in America.”

“Precisely because he doesn’t come from within the movement, his vision and appeal transcend the movement, which is what the movement needs,” Cohen said.

On Ordaining Gays

In an interview Monday, Eisen offered a window into his thinking on several top issues, including the most controversial in the Conservative movement today: the ordination of gay rabbis. “First, there has to be a halachic process,” he said. “The integrity of that process must be respected and may take time. Second, just as the faculty [of JTS] played an important role in the process on the ordination of women, I want faculty to think about where it stands on this issue.”

Personally, he said, “I would like to see these two [components] come together and lead to [accepting] gays” into the rabbinate and other leadership positions within Conservative Judaism, from which they are now formally excluded.

One of Eisen’s biggest challenges will be repairing the finances of JTS. Facing a debt estimated at more than $30 million last year, JTS sold off two Upper West Side properties, which brought in about $18 million, with the balance unresolved.

Eisen said he had done some fundraising for the Stanford Hillel, and that professionals had told him it “involves getting people excited about a vision, and matching their passions and your excitement. I am looking forward to this responsibility.” One goal will be to “re-energize the synagogues,” which Eisen noted “have nowhere to go but up,” in part because “we are wasting our laity and there is no [sense of] community.” Eisen wants to engage lay members by creating a dialogue between their areas of professional expertise and the Torah, to show that “the things Jews do” are relevant to Jewish law and values.Eisen plans to use the next year, while still under obligation to Stanford, as a “honeymoon period,” a time “to listen and learn” about the Conservative movement “before I get involved day to day.” He said he will use the time to think about putting into practice some of his ideas. One “lifelong concern” he has is “making Israel more important to American Jewry,” he said. Another is “to inspire Jewish leadership.” Noting that he envisions making JTS into a combination of Hebrew University and the Hartman Institute, a Jerusalem think tank of sorts based on religious pluralism, Eisen said he hopes to involve JTS’ “first-class faculty” in using the seminary for both “pure scholarship and applied scholarship, and what I call sponsored research” to tackle problems in Jewish life.

A devotee of the late Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, a pillar of the movement, Eisen said “he changed my life” by “teaching me how to speak in the name of God and Torah to address important concerns courageously.” “I watch the world self-destruct in the name of God, and it is a massive chillul Hashem,” Eisen said, using the Hebrew term for desecration of God’s name. “I want to use this institution to deal with issues like this.”

Rabbi Schorsch will step down on June 30 from the job he has held for two decades and Eisen will become “chancellor-designate” on July 1. But he won’t fully step into the position until the same date next year.

Seminary officials are not yet sure how the institution will be run in the meantime. “The situation is being evaluated. That’s all I have at this time,” wrote JTS spokesperson Sherry Kirschenbaum in an e-mail.

Editor and Publisher Gary Rosenblatt contributed to this report.

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