The new Chancellor of JTS will take up a mantle of both tradition and innovation

This week, the Jewish Theological Seminary will celebrate its 126th (virtual) commencement exercises – the final of Chancellor Arnold Eisen’s tenure. With Eisen’s retirement date set for June 30, JTS will announce his successor in the weeks ahead, perhaps by way of a plume of white smoke from its newly renovated campus at 3080 Broadway.

What an extraordinary time for a new leader to take the reins of the Conservative Movement’s flagship institution. Our is an era of profound social disruption wrought by a game changing global pandemic. How communities are created and sustained, how Jewish education is conceptualized, how identity itself is formed, every assumption of the past – up for grabs. The lifeblood of legacy institutions like JTS is drawn from a promise of continuity. How will the new chancellor navigate the upheavals of our time all the while staying true to its historic mission?

The answer may lie in the realization that, uncertain as our present moment may be, this is not the first time JTS has had to ask such questions.

The very founding of JTS can be understood as a response to the social transformations wrought by the arrival of the millions of Eastern European Jews in America in the 1880’s. At the time, the Reform Movement held sway over American Jewry, its rejection of traditional Jewish observance best exemplified by the infamous “Treifa Banquet,” a 1883 graduation dinner held in Cincinnati in honor of Hebrew Union College’s first graduating class. The feast, which included clams, frog legs and ice cream, together with Reform Judaism’s 1885 Pittsburgh Platform rejecting Mosaic law, catalyzed a group of traditionalists, led by JTS’s first leader — Sabato Morais (1886-1897) — to break away and create JTS, a training ground for a modern, American and traditional rabbinate.

The arrival of Solomon Schechter (1902-1915) coincided with the Kishinev Pogroms (1903) and the death of Theodore Herzl (1904). Schechter’s vast rabbinic learning, secular training and traditional orientation made him the perfect leader to explain America to the waves of immigrants; Schechter himself noted that for a rabbi to be successful in America, he must be able to speak baseball. By the time Schechter died in 1915, not only had he assembled a world class faculty of Jewish scholars, he had seeded the very organizations — the United Synagogue, the Rabbinical Assembly — that would become the arms of what we now know as the Conservative Movement.

Like the biblical Isaac sandwiched between his charismatic father Abraham and his tribe-producing son Jacob, Cyrus Adler (1915-1940), is often remembered as the guy between Solomon Schechter and Louis Finkelstein. And yet like the biblical Isaac — Adler was the leader without whom the enterprise of Jewish continuity would have never survived. Adler led JTS during the First World War and the financial crisis of the Great Depression. Adler also led JTS through the melting pot years of the immigrant experience — establishing JTS’s Teacher’s Institute, seeding JTS graduates in American Jewish communities and defining the standpoint of the JTS as differentiated from the Reform and Orthodox movements.

Adler’s successor, Louis Finkelstein (1940-1972), took the reins of JTS in the midst of the upheavals of the Shoah, the establishment of the State of Israel and post-war suburbanization. Finkelstein understood JTS and Judaism as whole to have a universal mission. Under Finkelstein’s tenure, JTS strove to be the institution of higher learning in America and the representative of American Jewry. Finkelstein was on the cover of Time magazine and created the Eternal Light radio and television programs aimed to explain not just Judaism, but religion itself, to America.

Finkelstein’s successor, Gerson Cohen (1972-1986) was a historian of first rank and perhaps the most elegant expositor of all JTS Chancellors. As Jewish studies programs proliferated, Cohen deepened the community of JTS scholarship, establishing doctoral programs and building the JTS library complex. Cohen advocated on behalf of Masorti, the Conservative movement in Israel, and set in motion the requirement for every rabbinical student to study in Jerusalem for a year. Cohen’s tenure coincided with a dramatic time for JTS and feminism – he is remembered most as the Chancellor under whose tenure women were ordained as Conservative Rabbis.

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So too Ismar Schorsch (1986-2006) led JTS in a time of redefinition — for the Conservative Movement, for the Diaspora relationship to Israel – not to mention the fall of the Iron Curtain. Schorsch expanded the mission of JTS into a full-fledged university — its finances, faculty and student body. Schorsch created Project Judaica, a Moscow based program aimed to cultivate Russian Jewish leadership, and expanded JTS’s footprint in Israel.

Just prior to assuming the chancellorship, Arnold Eisen (2008-2020) published a book called “The Jew Within,” in which he explored the rise of the “Sovereign Self,” a postmodern turn to Jewish identity that prizes individualism and personal autonomy. Eisen understood the task of JTS to be the training of leaders capable of serving an American Jewry in search of personal meaning, for whom denominational lines matter less. Under Eisen’s tenure the JTS budget shifted away from its graduate schools to its professional schools, including the establishment of a center for clinical pastoral education, a center for spiritual arts and a center for ethics and justice. Eisen is leaving JTS with a new building built that bears his intellectual imprimatur – a JTS poised to develop leaders capable of serving the evolving spiritual needs of what Eisen dubs the “vital Jewish center.”

From the immigrant experience, to the journey of acculturation, to the establishment of Israel, to post-war mobility, to the age of the sovereign self, every chancellor of JTS has been called on to respond to the upheavals of the age. The task of the new Chancellor is no different than that of those who came before. A Chancellor tasked with training rabbis, cantors, educators and scholars capable of leading an American Jewry and America in desperate need of moral leadership. A Chancellor willing to boldly renew Jewish tradition even as the nature of community and identity formation is changing. A Chancellor empowered to give voice to the theological language in response to the searching questions of the day. These tasks of leadership development, balancing tradition and change and theological meaning have been the calling card of JTS since its very inception.

Whoever the new Chancellor of JTS will be, I hope he or she takes inspiration from Solomon Schechter’s closing words in his 1902 inaugural address: “There will continue to be in Israel profound dreamers to assert that the work of God will never be complete…The true Israelite is he who, in his discontent, thirsts always for the future, and the race is not yet ready to fail.’ By the help of God we shall not fail.’”

Elliot Cosgrove is the rabbi of the Park Avenue Synagogue in Manhattan.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Forward.

‘The lifeblood of institutions like JTS is continuity’

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The new Chancellor of JTS will take up a mantle of both tradition and innovation

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