Arnold Eisen traveled to the Jewish Theological Seminary of America 35 years ago, ostensibly to interview the legendary professor Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel for the student newspaper at the University of Pennsylvania. But for the young religious studies major the encounter with the spiritual icon and civil rights activist was more than just an assignment.
“He saw at once that I had personal questions to ask him,” Eisen recalled this week, “and he was, in a Buberian sense, totally there for me, totally present, for two solid hours, and the guy changed my life.”
Now Eisen is poised to do what Heschel never could — change the seminary from within.
This week, Eisen was officially named the seventh chancellor of the seminary, a post widely viewed as the titular head of Conservative Judaism. Currently the head of Stanford University’s religious studies department, Eisen is not slated to start full time in his new post until the summer of 2007; but he’s already speaking out on a range of issues facing the movement, including the contentious question of whether or not the seminary should drop its ban on ordaination of gay rabbis.
“My personal vote right now is, I’m in favor of the ordination of gay and lesbian rabbis,” Eisen, 54, told the Forward just hours after his appointment. “I want to learn from my colleagues and I want to talk to people, but this is my strong conviction right now.”
Eisen quickly added his belief that the Conservative movement’s top lawmaking body, which is expected to vote on the issue in December, should make the final decision. Still, he said, striking a more open tone than many movement leaders, the collective voice of the JTS faculty should be heard before then, as should the voice of the laity.
Eisen, a Jewish studies professor, will replace the seminary’s longtime chancellor, Rabbi Ismar Schorsch, who is stepping down in June after two decades at the helm of an institution that has historically served as Conservative Judaism’s center of gravity. Last month, at a convention of the movement’s rabbis in Mexico City, Schorsch reiterated his long-standing opposition to lifting the ban on homosexuality, and his belief that change on the issue could split the movement.
Eisen’s nomination was approved at a meeting of the 18-member search committee April 4, and was first reported on the Forward’s Web site three days later. On Monday, the JTS board of directors finalized the decision.
The announcement caps a nine-month search process and a tumultuous year for Conservative Judaism, which has publicly wrestled with the treatment of gay and lesbian Jews as well as with wider questions about the role of rabbinic law, or Halacha, in the movement and the importance of a pluralistic approach to such core issues as egalitarianism.
Eisen, who has a doctorate from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, has long been an influential voice in the Conservative movement and in the broader American Jewish community, both as a popular speaker at synagogues and as an adviser to Jewish organizations. He is the author of several works on the state and future of American Judaism, including the 2000 book, “The Jew Within: Self, Family, and Community in America,” which was co-written by Steven Cohen, a research professor at Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion in New York. The book used survey data to argue that American Jews increasingly see religious identity as an individual matter and opt to craft their own religious practices and identities rather than depend on rabbinic authorities.
Eisen is the second non-rabbi to serve in the top position at JTS, which was founded in 1886 and today includes rabbinical and cantorial schools as well as academic graduate programs, a graduate school in Jewish education and an undergraduate college. Cyrus Adler, a scholar and educator who was a founder of the Jewish Welfare Board, served in the position from 1915 to 1940.
In 2003, Yeshiva University tapped Richard Joel, a non-rabbi lawyer with no doctorate, to be its president. But as the international director of the global campus organization Hillel, Joel had a proven record as a manager and fund-raiser with the power to transform a lethargic organization.
Eisen counts the president of the Reform movement’s seminary, Rabbi David Ellenson, as one of his best friends.
Several insiders contacted by the Forward praised what they said was Eisen’s combination of intellectual rigor and interpersonal sensitivity, and said they viewed his work with congregations as an asset to him in his new role.
There is a “distance between the clergy and the laity in the Conservative movement, and I think he helps bridge the distance while being a top academic,” said Rela Mintz Geffen, president of Baltimore Hebrew University and a member of a prominent Conservative movement family. “He was thought of as one of those people who lay people could relate to and who could talk about the contemporary American Jewish community in a way that reflects great respect for tradition and an understanding of what creates community.”
In his interview with the Forward, Eisen said he would focus on “energizing and motivating and getting a message out to the Conservative movement” and would push JTS to be more fully engaged with Conservative life outside of its campus in New York City’s Morningside Heights neighborhood.
He said he would work to provide better pastoral training for rabbinical students and would personally help train them in translating their academic background into terms that resonate with laity.
Eisen also said that he would work to maintain the quality of the seminary’s academic scholarship while encouraging faculty members to undertake “applied research” that brings their expertise to bear on issues facing the Conservative movement and American Jewry.
Rabbi Joel Meyers, executive vice president of the movement’s rabbinic union, the 1,600-member Rabbinical Assembly, said he is hearing mixed reaction among his colleagues to the appointment of a non-rabbi.
Meyers said that in their initial reactions, some rabbis had expressed a “a supportive point of view” about Eisen’s selection, while others expressed concern that “there would be a rabbinic presence missing from a key institution of the movement.”
Eisen said he understood the concern, adding that twice earlier on in the search he had declined to be considered for the chancellorship, in part because he believed that a rabbi-scholar was the ideal candidate.
“I understand the job rabbis have, I understand the difficulties, and I think it’s an important job and they have my respect,” Eisen said, noting his work with rabbis and his own experiences as a scholar in residence in many congregations. “I think that when that message gets transmitted, the rabbis are going to be fine with this.”
Friends and colleagues say that Eisen and his wife, Adriane Leveen, a senior lecturer in Stanford’s department of religious studies, frequently host meals on the Sabbath. Eisen is a frequent Torah reader in synagogue and also active in a monthly Torah discussion group he helped found, which attracts a denominationally diverse crowd.
Eisen said he had been initially reluctant to pursue the job for personal reasons: He did not want to move his family across the country before the younger of his two children, now a 16-year-old junior, graduates high school.
But in February, when it became clear that JTS was still searching, Eisen decided he wanted the job, assuming he could put off his start date until the summer of 2007. The board of directors agreed. Until then, he will work for the seminary part time as he finishes up his obligations at Stanford.
A major focus of his job, Eisen said, would be fund raising, particularly because JTS currently raises a very substantial percentage of its operating budget from its annual campaign.
In response to a question from the Forward about the institution’s overall financial health — in December 2004 it was disclosed that JTS borrowed $36 million from “internal sources,” but further details were never made public — Eisen said that he had been briefed about the matter while a candidate, and in greater detail over the past week, and was satisfied that the seminary is financially stable.
“I would not be taking this job if I thought I was entering into a debacle,” Eisen said. At the same time, he acknowledged that he has “a big job cut out for me with fund raising.”
Like other JTS officials and board members, Eisen declined to discuss details of the financial problems that were revealed two years ago. But he appeared to leave the door open to future disclosures and spoke about the general need for institutional candor.
“I’m going to make sure that under my chancellorship, we’re going to be as transparent as we can,” Eisen said. “I’m hoping for openness on all fronts.”