Critics Charge JTS Board With Power Play in Search

By Jennifer Siegel and Ami Eden

Published July 15, 2005, issue of July 15, 2005.
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Board members of the flagship institution of Conservative Judaism have executed what critics are describing as a power play aimed at limiting the say of the faculty and other arms of the movement in selecting a new leader. Movement insiders say the maneuvering could tilt the selection in a more traditionalist direction.

Last month, the longtime chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, Rabbi Ismar Schorsch, announced he would retire in June 2006, setting off a search to fill the post commonly seen as the titular head of Conservative Judaism. Initially, movement insiders said that under existing rules the search committee would be composed of five members of the JTS faculty members, six members of the seminary’s board and four more individual representing the other major arms of the movement.

But, sources told the Forward, after a vote taken over the telephone in late June, the board expanded its representation on the search committee. The committee is being headed by the seminary’s longtime chairman, Gershon Kekst, and another board member, Robert Rifkind.

Kekst and the seminary’s main spokeswoman did not return calls seeking comment. Rifkind could not be reached.

The search for a new JTS chancellor comes as the movement wrestles with a number of hot-button issues, including the ordination of gay rabbis and the role of non-Jewish spouses in synagogue life. While some movement rabbis and JTS faculty have voiced support for several candidates seen as relative liberals on these and other issues, top officials at JTS are perceived as wanting someone who, like Schorsch, would be more of a traditionalist on such matters.

Several movement insiders said that the perception in some faculty and rabbinic circles is that a major aim of the board is to block the ascension of a religious liberal who might seek to end the Conservative ban on gay rabbinic ordination and same-sex unions. If so, one of the most popular candidates in many corners of the movement, Rabbi Gordon Tucker, could be facing an uphill battle.

Tucker, a former dean of the seminary’s rabbinic school who was widely seen as being pushed out by Schorsch, previously told the Forward that he had no plans to leave his current pulpit position in White Plains, N.Y.

The decision to expand the board’s representation drew criticism from several rabbis and JTS faculty members.

“It’s disappointing,” said Rabbi David Fine of Congregation Shaarei Tikvah in Scarsdale, N.Y. Fine, who received his ordination from JTS in 1999 and a master’s degree in philosophy from its graduate school in 2002, said he would like the committee to have some student representation and a greater proportion of faculty members.

“One of the official titles of the chancellor is president of the faculty,” Fine said. “The faculty needs to be comfortable with the person who’s going to stand at its head.”

One rabbi of a major big-city congregation who asked not to be identified said that “this is the board of the seminary flexing its muscles, in a sense, and saying we’re not going to let others make the choice for us.”

According to a statement posted on the seminary’s Web site, the search committee is currently made up of 18 members. Five are members of the faculty: Deborah Reed Blank, Benjamin Gampel, Neil Gillman, Barry Holtz and Seth Schwartz. Four committee members appear to be representing Conservative organizations: Judy Yudof, president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism; Rabbi Perry Rank, international president of the Rabbinical Assembly; Gloria Cohen, president of the Women’s League for Conservative Judaism, and Arthur Spar, vice president of the New England region of the Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs. Yudof and Cohen are also members of the JTS board.

The remaining nine members of the search committee are JTS board members: Kekst, Rifkind, Stephen Axinn, Abby Joseph Cohen, Robert Kaplan, Stephen Lovell, Jeffrey Rosen, Gerald Rosenfeld and Stanley Tulin.

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