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Boston Rabbinical Program Challenges Denominational Boundaries

For better or for worse, what one first notices about the fledgling Hebrew College rabbinical program is what it is not: It’s not affiliated with a movement or committed to a single view of how Jewish law is meant to be understood. And it’s not very big or old — the first of its 45 students will graduate in 2008. But, as I kept asking as I approached the program’s shiny new building atop a hill in Newton, Mass., what is it?

According to the program’s rector, Rabbi Arthur Green, a former dean of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College and professor at Brandeis, the school is a synthesis between the Orthodox world’s traditional methods of text study and progressive values like egalitarianism and historical methodologies.

In other words, as Rabbi Or Rose, who directs the program’s Beit Midrash, said, “we’re a blend between the academy and a yeshiva.” Rabbinical schools need to be “spiritual laboratories,” Rose said. The result is an institution that emphasizes time in the beit midrash, social activism in the field, and a wide array of prayer and spiritual practices. It also means that a chevruta (study pair) might include one person who keeps kosher and one who doesn’t — and that the communal prayer service may be a traditional morning davening one week, meditative chanting the next.

In a sense, Hebrew College is truly post-denominational: It distinguishes itself not according to the familiar denominational contours (how strictly you keep kosher, how you pray) but according to new ones that seem, to the outsider, at least, still to be in formation. But, the program’s dean, Rabbi Sharon Cohen Anisfeld, argued that the program is not so much post-denominational as it is trans-denominational. The difference? “We want to include people who identify with any of the denominations…. Denominations can be a vibrant source of Jewish life, and we have students who are planning to affiliate with one of the movements after graduation.”

In fact, Anisfeld said, the school encourages its graduates to affiliate with a movement — not least because doing so makes it easier to get a job. (The Reform and Conservative movements have agreed to let Hebrew College students apply for membership in their rabbinical associations; the Orthodox and Reconstructionist movements have not.) Employment, of course, is probably the biggest risk that students face entering a new, non- (sorry, trans-) denominational program, but Anisfeld says she is not concerned: “I’m a worrier by temperament, and this is not something I’m worried about at all.” Anisfeld said the school has been “inundated” with requests for rabbinic internships and that, ultimately, the program’s graduates will be judged on their merits. “The movements don’t love it, but the congregations vote with their feet. There’s a real hunger out there for great rabbis.”

Most of the students I spoke to said that, for them, the trans-denominational, pluralistic element was critical.

Joseph Berman, a second-year student, said that “because there is no ideology or dogma supported by the institution, I feel like I have the space to be myself, to be radical, outside the liberal consensus.” Berman said that while it can be “challenging” to be in an ideologically diverse community, it “is ultimately more rewarding than a forced or false uniformity.”

Karen Silberman, a “second-year, second-career” student (her first career was as an accountant), said that the lack of fixed halachic ideology means that “you have to take it on and stand as an individual. You reconcile it here for yourself.”

Still, there are some baselines, perhaps most notably in the case of prayer. I was surprised to learn that all “official” Hebrew College services feature full participation by women. At first, Green said, this was a decision based on pragmatism. “We started with 11 students, and we had to do it one way or the other,” he said. Eventually, however, it became a point of principle.

Green acknowledged that this decision effectively excludes Orthodox students. “We would like to be trans-denominational all the way across the spectrum, but it doesn’t seem likely that people who want to be Orthodox rabbis will come to this program, and we recognize that.” Green noted that the program has scheduled “all-day dialogue programs” with Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, the liberal Orthodox seminary located in New York.

The issue of prayer, Anisfeld said, is an old one. “The conventional wisdom in most pluralistic communities is you can learn together but you can’t daven together.” But she said, “Right from the beginning, the school made the decision that we were going to daven together, and that is an experiment.”

First-year student Jeremy Fierstein, the son of a Conservative rabbi and a student for 13 years at a day school with ties to the prestigious Orthodox Lakewood Yeshiva, was one of those most challenged by the insistence on egalitarianism and on experimental approaches to prayer. “It’s tough, because to me, Halacha is so important — and it’s not as important to others,” he said, noting that he has “struggled” with the question of egalitarianism for many years. “I davened in minyanim where women weren’t counted. But I’ve decided to put some issues on hold and deal with them when I get out of here. In the meantime, I’m going to absorb as much as possible.”

Fierstein added that the Hebrew College faculty “are the most amazing teachers I’ve had at any school,” although initially he was surprised by the lack of a single halachic authority. “I came here looking for a rebbe, and there wasn’t one.”

For Rose, Hebrew College’s commitment to text study and spirituality is joined by what he called the “third pillar” of rabbinic training: gemilut chasadim, or righteous deeds. “If we believe rabbis should be agents for social change, we need to provide them with serious training,” Rose said. “How do you do a sermon on Darfur? How do we learn from activists like Gandhi or King? How do you convince people to attend a rally supporting Israel — or on Israel and Palestine, depending on your politics?”

To answer these questions, Hebrew College requires its students to complete a fixed number of volunteer hours, to learn what Rose called “synagogue-based organizing,” and to complete a two-year “leadership and organizing seminar.” Rose said he wants to learn from Christian churches how to wed “prophetic consciousness and organizing savvy.”

Indeed, a surprising number of Hebrew College students are already involved in social activism. First-year student Margie Klein runs a social-action-centered “intentional community” called Kavod House. Berman said he hopes to go into “spiritual organizing” after graduation. And Hebrew College may be the only institution in which debates about talmudic tort law are interspersed with conversations about nongendered bathrooms.

Still, no amount of social activism can fill an institution’s coffers, and Green admitted that one of the perils of independence is sustaining the program financially. Money is tight, and tuition is expensive. Yet, Green argued that “the idea that seminaries need to be funded out of synagogues may be an idea out of a prior generation. This is an age in which large family foundations dominate the Jewish fundraising scene. Many of those foundations are already trans-denominational in their scope, and it is to those foundations and people of like mind that we would like to appeal.”

Anisfeld, Rose and Green all agreed that Hebrew College is not trying to start a new movement. (“We’re just training rabbis,” Anisfeld said.) Yet they disagreed on the value that movements do play. On the one hand, Anisfeld said that “movements still play incredibly important roles,” and Rose called himself “a product of the [Conservative movement’s] Camp Ramah system who knows how much movements have contributed.” On the other hand, Green said that “the separation between our kind of Jews and other kinds of Jews has always made me uncomfortable, whether that comes from Satmar or from the Reform movement. Separation is a high price to pay for what denominational identity has to offer.”

Even if Hebrew College only succeeds in decoupling American rabbinic ordination from a particular halachic orientation, however, it would be a significant change from the status quo. Is it possible that one’s approaches to sacred text, spirituality and social action will really matter more in the 21st century than one’s view of halachic tradition and change? Is it possible for a school to be truly pluralistic on fundamental questions? And is it possible that other funding methods will replace the system of synagogue dues funding national, centralized organizations?

Only time will tell. In the meantime, the experiment is still a new one, and the school is still quite small; one of only two students in the school’s preparatory-year program just dropped out, and the school is experiencing its share of financial and organizational growing pains. Yet optimism runs high. Said the first-year Fierstein: “We are a dynamic institution, and we are going to make our mark. The world can’t not take notice.”

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