The “way-outside-the-box” choice to lead an interfaith theological school in Berkeley, Calif. — an Orthodox rabbi from the East Coast — was busy getting to know the campus community at the Graduate Theological Union, he joined students and faculty in helping to build the institution’s annual sukkah in front of a classroom building.
Rabbi Lehmann is very engaged in campus life.
During Sukkot last month, in a sign that he was growing comfortable in his new post, the rabbi joined the handful of other Jews there in the communal sukkah.
And last week, a few days after the end of the holiday, the Yeshiva University-ordained rabbi was inaugurated as GTU’s president. He becomes the first Jew, indeed the first non-Christian, to head the Union since its founding in 1962 as a consortium of five Protestant theological schools.
Rabbi Lehmann, 57, a native of Syracuse, comes to his new position from the Boston area, where he had served as president of the nondenominational Hebrew College, worked at two co-ed day schools, and was active in a variety of interfaith activities.
Appointed in August 2018, Rabbi Lehmann only agreed to be inaugurated after a year spent getting to know the students and faculty on the 245-student campus, familiarizing himself with the GTU campus culture and introducing several new academic programs.
He recognized that he was an unusual choice for GTU, which calls itself “the most comprehensive center for the graduate study of religion in North America … the largest and most diverse partnership of seminaries and graduate schools in the United States.” Its member schools include seminaries for Episcopalians, Baptists, and Lutherans, among others, but also masters and doctoral programs across all faiths.
“I was certainly an out-of-the-box candidate as a rabbi and a lifelong resident of the East Coast,” he said during his inauguration ceremony last week.
His appointment, he said in a telephone interview, is a symbol of what he sees as growing cooperation among faith groups in this country — a cooperation that is particularly needed in an era of uncivility in the political and religious culture. “The polarities that characterize our society and the religious tensions that continue to burst into hatred and violence require a powerful response from religious thinkers, leaders and activists,” he said.
A Jew becoming the head of a major interreligious institution is “an important statement” about the Jewish community’s growing acceptance in non-Jewish circles, said Jonathan Sarna, professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University. “I don’t think anyone blinked when his appointment was announced,” said Rabbi David Sandmel, director of interfaith affairs for the Anti-Defamation League.
At GTU, Rabbi Lehmann finds himself potentially a target for criticism from several directions. Other Orthodox Jews, for example, often object to cooperation with non-Jews that may be interpreted as overt accommodation or doctrinal dialogue, which many Orthodox rabbis have forbidden — as opposed to humanitarian and cultural cooperation. “I’m interested in relations between Judaism and the broader world — Judaism is a blessing to the world,” said the rabbi, who was raised in the Conservative movement and attended public schools in his hometown.
Pro-Palestinian websites, meanwhile, have questioned whether Rabbi Lehmann, who had studied for a year at a yeshiva in Jerusalem, can objectively guide GTU activities that involve Middle East politics.
“GTU is not a political entity. My personal views will not influence the institution’s curriculum or programs. In fact, we pride ourselves on exploring and engaging differences of opinion and seeking understanding.”
If critics are willing to meet with him, he said, “I try to explain the basis of my commitments” and his effort to keep them separate from his academic duties.
As a sign of the balance he aims to achieve, kosher food was served at his inauguration, but he did not include any Hebrew blessings in his speech. “I didn’t want to make it a Jewish ceremony,” he said.
New programs that the rabbi, a successful fundraiser, has initiated include an interreligious chaplaincy training program, online certificates in interreligious studies, an expansion of the joint Jewish-Islamic Madrasa-Midrasha Program of advanced learning, and yoga studies. In the future, he said, he’d like to increase GTU’s partnerships with “schools, centers and affiliates.” He wants to take professors from several of the campus’ religious communities — including Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Hindu – around the country in an RV, “inviting the public to participate … creating a documentary of religious engagement and pluralism.”
Finally, the elephant in the room when a Jewish person is appointed to a historic, high-visibility position at an institution that is predominantly Christian: anti-Semitism.
Rabbi Lehmann said he hasn’t encountered anti-Semitism at the predominantly Christian institution. Students and staff members respect his religious observance.
“Everyone understands that Shabbat, yom tov, I don’t work,” he said. He leaves his office a few hours before sundown on Friday afternoons. On the way out, he says, Christians and Muslims often wish him “a Shabbat shalom.”