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Taking JTS Reins No Easy Task: With Schorsch Stepping Down Next Year, Some New Chancellor Must Alter Conservatives' Vision t

Reprinted from The Jewish Week with permission of the author. Visit

No sooner had Rabbi Ismar Schorsch announced last week that he would be retiring in a year as head of the Conservative movement's Jewish Theological Seminary than the speculation begin to swirl on his successor and what direction the next chancellor should take to revitalize a once-dominant denomination whose size and influence have been diminishing.

"We defined American Judaism," said Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, dean of the University of Judaism rabbinical school in Los Angeles, who is among those being cited by JTS sources as a possible candidate to succeed Schorsch.

"Being pro-Zionist, pro-democracy and pro-learning were all exclusively Conservative values 100 years ago. Now they're owned by everyone," he said.

Observers say the Conservative movement, whose membership has been shrinking in the past 15 years, must find a leader who can articulate its central commitment to Torah but also shift its focus toward a newly expansive, inclusive and inspiring vision for the denomination.

JTS has long been the fountainhead Conservative institution and the chancellor the movement's leading spokesman.

Schorsch's successor will be stepping into a role that lately has been entangled in a thicket of contentious issues, among them a bruising fight over who controls its Jerusalem campus, Machon Schechter.

There was also the news, first reported in December by The Jewish Week, that JTS was facing tens of millions of dollars of debt. With part of the debt alleviated by the sale of some Manhattan property, JTS representatives say the institution is now on firm financial footing.

In addition, the next chancellor must confront the issue of ordaining gay and lesbian rabbis, which has split the movement's leaders, largely along generational lines, for 15 years.

In Israel this week, Schorsch was unavailable for an interview, according to a JTS spokeswoman. In past interviews he has made it clear that he opposes their ordination.

But the movement's Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, which in the 1990s ruled against the ordination of gay and lesbian rabbis, took up the matter again recently and is slated to vote on it next spring. So by the time the new chancellor begins his work, the issue may already have been decided, said Rabbi Artson, a member of the law committee.

Overall, the most significant issue buffeting the movement continues to be its shrinking size. While the Conservative movement was for decades the country's largest, the most recent National Jewish Population Study showed that it had shrunk as the Reform movement had grown.

The 1990 NJPS showed a roughly even amount of constituents in the Conservative and Reform movements. But a decade later, in the 2000-01 NJPS, 26 percent of American Jewish adults described themselves as Conservative, with 35 percent as Reform.

The later study also showed that nearly half of adult Jews raised within the Conservative movement are no longer connected to it, with most of them gone to Reform.

Schorsch's retirement next year, when he is 70, is also the first step in what is likely to be a generational shift for the movement. The heads of the three major arms of the denomination--JTS, the Rabbinical Assembly and the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, which represents congregants--all started their jobs in the mid-1980s.

And while the 65-year-old head of the RA, Rabbi Joel Meyers, said in an interview from Jerusalem that he doesn't have any immediate plans to retire, his 62-year-old counterpart at the United Synagogue, Rabbi Jerome Epstein, said he would be stepping down in 2009.

"Twenty years ago when these guys were put in place, the movement was looking for people who could calm everything down because of the fractiousness of the fight over women's ordination," which at the time had just been decided, said a well-placed source. "They succeeded. Now it's so calm, you can barely see a pulse."

Several leading Conservative rabbis spoke of the need to enlarge the vision of what Conservative Judaism can be.

"Our understanding of, and the way we try and teach commitment to Jewish law, is one that has been in many ways too narrow," said Rabbi Gordon Tucker of Temple Israel Center in White Plains, N.Y., another name being tossed around as a potential candidate.

"The idea that there is a more expansive and multi-dimensional way of thinking of halachic (Jewish legal) commitment is something we haven't dared to try out and articulate to our public. To some extent that's held us back for reasons I completely understand," he said.

"It's not easy to keep a big coalition together, but when the fear of losing people on the margins begins to undermine some of the things that constitute the unique contribution you have to make, it's time to rethink that a little bit."

Rabbi David Wolpe of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles, another being mentioned as a likely candidate for the chancellor's post, said the foundation of the movement has been in scholarship and should be there, "but the presentation of the movement suffers from being too scholarly."

"Presenting a Judaism of joy is much more powerful to people than presenting a Judaism of defiant, rear-guard obligation," said Rabbi Wolpe. "That is often the way that Conservative Judaism is seen."

Some observers are framing the needed shift in terms as one being away from the intellect, which has always been the seat of the Conservative denomination's strength, and toward a movement that puts greater emphasis on the heart and soul of Jewish engagement.

"The question of merging the intellectual understanding of Judaism with the emotional, spiritual side has always been a tension in the movement," said Rabbi Meyers, executive vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly. "It ebbs and flows depending on where general culture is.

"Today there's a greater emphasis on the spiritual, on the heart side, which we see in all religious camps. I agree that there's a need for that in the movement," he said. "As much as we want to maintain our own intellectual approach to understanding Judaism, faith can't be intellectual alone. It has to have in it that emotional component, that sense of godliness and mystery."

But not everyone at JTS agrees that component should be given greater focus by movement leaders.

"I don't accept the rap of needing more heart and soul even for the rabbinical school," said Jack Wertheimer, JTS provost and another of the rumored potential candidates. "The strength of JTS has always been its very strong academic orientation, and some would argue that JTS ought to be true to itself.

"We're living in a Jewish community in which there is a bent now toward anti-intellectualism with buzz words like 'community' and 'meaning' and 'spirituality.' Those are really not well defined," he said. "If anything, we need religious leaders who will bring some rigor to the way they approach the challenges facing the Jewish community."

Some cite another priority for the top of the next chancellor's agenda to move the movement forward in a way that will engage more Jews: outreach.

"There needs to be kiruv to affiliated but not fully committed Conservative Jews to inspire people to greater commitment to education and living halacha," said the United Synagogue's Rabbi Epstein in an interview from Jerusalem, where movement leaders were attending Jewish Agency meetings.

But "we in the Conservative movement also have to develop keruv to the non-Jew, especially to the intermarried Jew," he said. "That's really a major challenge for us. We have a task ahead in equipping our leadership to do that, and the chancellor will have to help guide the faculty to do that."

One of the Conservative movement's rabbis in training also cited that approach as a key emphasis for Schorsch's successor.

"The new chancellor will need to articulate what it means to be a Conservative Jew without alienating people," said Rachel Kahn-Troster, president of the JTS Rabbinical School Student Organization, which represents approximately 130 students.

Like other groups within the movement, the Rabbinical School Student Organization is aiming for participation on the chancellor search committee that is forming. As of Wednesday it was not clear whether they would be given a seat.

"I like to think that there's a place in the Conservative movement for families which are intermarried and also for those people who have become more religious," said Kahn-Troster. "I like to think we'll have room for both. My fear is that one or the other group will get ignored. We can't be afraid of the diversity.

"My hope is that the next chancellor will have that full vision of the Conservative movement, which includes everyone who's in our families," she said. "That might be a nice model for the movement."

Derived from the Greek word for "assembly," a Jewish house of prayer. Synagogue refers to both the room where prayer services are held and the building where it occurs. In Yiddish, "shul." Reform synagogues are often called "temple." Derived from the Hebrew for "Jewish law," it's pertaining or according to the body of Jewish religious law including biblical law (those commandments found in the Torah), later Talmudic and rabbinic law, as well as customs and traditions. Hebrew for "Jewish law," it's the body of Jewish religious law including biblical law (those commandments found in the Torah), later Talmudic and rabbinic law, as well as customs and traditions. A supporter of the ideal that Israel be defined as a Jewish nation state. Reform synagogues are often called "temple." "The Temple" refers to either the First Temple, built by King Solomon in 957 BCE in Jerusalem, or the Second Temple, which replaced the First Temple and stood on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem from 516 BCE to 70 CE. Hebrew for "bringing close," a term meaning Jewish outreach. Hebrew for "bringing close," a term meaning Jewish outreach. Hebrew for "my master," the term refers to a spiritual leader and teacher of Torah. Often, but not always, a rabbi is the leader of a synagogue congregation. The first five books of the Hebrew Bible (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy), or the scroll that contains them.
Debra Nussbaum Cohen

Debra Nussbaum Cohen is a staff writer for the New York Jewish Week.

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