Feud Divides Israeli Rabbinical School

By Forward Staff; With Reporting by Mitchell Ginsburg in Jerusalem and Ami Eden in New York

Published June 03, 2005, issue of June 03, 2005.
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JERUSALEM — An explosive feud at the Conservative movement’s rabbinical school in Israel ended this week with a slew of resignations.

The fight featured warring camps of board and faculty members of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies, an academic degree-granting graduate institution, and the Schechter rabbinical school. The very subject of the feud has been in dispute, with some saying that control and others claiming that academic standards were at stake. In the end, sources familiar with the situation said, it was an American — Rabbi Ismar Schorsch, chancellor of New York’s Jewish Theological Seminary — who played the decisive role in the power struggle.

At Schorsch’s urging, the chairman of the Israeli rabbinical school, Rabbi Lee Levine, stepped down Tuesday, along with about half-dozen board members and administrators.

Also on Tuesday, Schorsch was named the interim chairman of the rabbinical school’s international board of directors. He was seen as the main booster of Rabbi Einat Ramon, who was tapped Tuesday to serve as the interim dean of the rabbinical school.

The shakeup is raising questions about the role of New York-based leaders in governing a rabbinical school in Jerusalem that is charged with recruiting Israelis to the pulpit. It is also shining a spotlight on the Israeli seminary’s low enrollment.

Schorsch called for the shakeup in a May 23 letter to Levine that was sent to the entire board.

“Instead of proclaiming our achievement of having made Schechter part of the matrix of higher education in Israel, instead of raising our voice to help Israelis come to terms with the disengagement from Gaza from a Jewish perspective, we are once again turning inward to fight among ourselves,” Schorsch wrote. “The preoccupation with our navel prevents us from ever catching sight of the horizon.”

Schorsch argued that if Levine did not step down, it would “lead to the risible end of two Conservative rabbinical programs in Israel.”

The JTS chancellor was seen as rallying to the side of Rabbi David Golinkin, president and rector of the Schechter Institute and the rabbinical school’s chief religious arbiter. Critics of the maneuver said that Schorsch and Golinkin were bent on asserting control over the rabbinical school.

In 2003, when Israel’s Council for Higher Education granted the graduate school accreditation status for administering a master’s degree in Jewish Studies, the school and seminary were required under Israeli law to become two different legal entities. While the schools now have separate boards, they continue to operate out of the same building and share faculty members (instructors with academic degrees are paid by the institute, rabbis without academic degrees by the rabbinical school, a source said).

Soon after the organizational reshuffling, the dispute began.

Levine’s critics said the issues were management style and academic standards, not power politics. In particular, Levine has been criticized by professors for bringing in Fox (pronounced Fuchs), a graduate of the seminary, to revamp the rabbinical school curriculum.

In November 2003 Fox unveiled the restructured curriculum at a meeting. Academic faculty stated that “the curriculum was roundly criticized by almost everyone there.” Levine reportedly responded that the reaction was attributable to “teachers protecting their vested interests.”

Levine’s defenders said that he was attempting to create a more innovative, broader curriculum that would be more attractive to Israelis. Sources familiar with the institution said that it receives only a handful of applicants each year, far fewer than the Reform movement’s seminary in Jerusalem. The Conservative rabbinical school currently has 23 students enrolled in its four-year ordination program.

Ramon, the new interim dean, said that this year, the first with the new curriculum, was also the first with no new rabbinical candidates.

Levine’s critics said that he and Fox miscalculated by failing to consult adequately with the faculty. Some faculty members objected to what they claimed was a cut in time allotted to studying Talmud and rabbinic law.

Fox refused to speak with the Forward, quoting Leviticus 19 and its commandment to avoid “talebearing.” Lee could not be reached for comment.

Ramon defended Schorsch’s recent actions.

“Someone needed to decide,” she said. “We have a hierarchy. Ordinarily I don’t like hierarchies, but in institutions, hierarchies translate into orderliness, and that’s what happened here. The chancellor decided.”

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