In Hard Times, Jewish Theological Seminary Looks to New Leadership

By Anthony Weiss

Published June 17, 2009, issue of June 26, 2009.
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The flagship seminary of the Conservative movement continued its ongoing shake-up as its longtime lay leader stepped down and the school announced additional measures to balance its troubled finances.

Abby Joseph Cohen, a prominent Wall Street analyst, will succeed Gershon Kekst as the chairman of the Jewish Theological Seminary. Kekst, who has been chair for the last 18 years, will remain on the board of trustees.

Kekst’s departure, effective July 1, brings an end to a complicated tenure. During his stint as chairman, the seminary expanded significantly, including the addition of a new school of Jewish education, but it has also faced ongoing financial problems for the past several years. The problems have only gotten worse with the downturn of the economy and the financial markets.

Cohen has been on the JTS board since 2004 and helped select current Chancellor Arnold Eisen. Like Kekst, who runs a prominent financial industry public relations firm, Cohen is intimately familiar with the woes of the markets. She became one of the most famous women on Wall Street in the 1990s for correctly predicting the stock market’s long upward rise. Her reputation suffered, however, for failing to predict both the bursting of the stock bubble in the early 2000s and the more recent collapse of the financial sector and economies around the world.

Cohen declined through a JTS spokeswoman to grant an interview to the Forward.

Eisen said that Cohen had been active on the JTS board for a number of years and that he didn’t think that the changeover would mark a major rupture for the school.

“Her vision is very close to mine of JTS — in fact I don’t know of any differences between our visions,” Eisen told the Forward. “She likes the vision, she understands how important JTS is for American Jewish life in the coming decades, that’s why she wants to do this job.”

Though Eisen has spoken recently about the importance of having a “vision” of JTS and of Conservative Judaism, he told the Forward he does not want to lay out that vision while the school is carrying out a strategic planning process, for which it has hired organizational consultant Jack Ukeles.

Ukeles told the Forward that the process likely would not produce a clear direction until the end of 2009.

The shift in lay leadership on the JTS board comes at a time when the seminary is in the midst of a shake-up as it struggles both to right its shaky finances and to fulfill the high expectations that were set when Eisen took over as chancellor in 2007. On June 15, Eisen announced several measures intended to close a budget deficit for the next fiscal year, which had loomed at $5.5 million. The measures, which followed a number of cuts announced in late April, included a 10% pay cut for Eisen as well as progressively smaller pay cuts for other staff members, two layoffs (in addition to 25 that had been previously announced), and a planned increase in enrollment. Eisen said that the latest moves leave the seminary “very close” to a balanced budget.

Though the Conservative movement has always been organizationally divided, the head of JTS has historically provided the intellectual leadership for the movement.

“It’s a role the chancellor of JTS has traditionally played, and it’s a role I would like to play as well,” said Eisen. “I can say frankly that you would have seen me playing it more this year — the budget not only drained resources, it drained time.”

Before taking on his current role at JTS in 2007, Eisen was widely regarded, and quoted, as one of the leading scholars of American Jewish life. Eisen told the Forward that he would begin to take a more prominent public role this fall, and that he would begin to speak out more on issues such as forging closer bonds between American Jews and Israel, ways to engage younger Jews in Jewish life and the direction of Conservative Judaism.

“What I want to do is speak not only to Jews who are card-carrying Conservative Jews but I want to speak about this big middle of American Jewish life that JTS has always sought to lead and we still seek to lead it,” Eisen said.

Contact Anthony Weiss at weiss@forward.com


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