The Conservative movement in America faces a crisis centering on a bitter dispute between its two institutions of higher learning – which may result in a split between the East and West coasts.
Triggering the confrontation was the announcement earlier this month by the University of Judaism of the establishment of a full-fledged rabbinical school, whose graduates would be ordained as Conservative rabbis.
The Los Angeles-based university said an anonymous $22 million gift enabled it to expand its current two-year preparatory program at the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies into a four-year program, starting next fall.
The move did not sit well with the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York, the parent campus of the university.
The JTS has been the sole institution in the United States granting ordination to Conservative rabbis, in conjunction with the Rabbinical Assembly, the national organization of Conservative rabbis that, among other purposes, accredits schools from which they graduate.
One week after the University of Judaism announcement, JTS Chancellor Ismar Schorsch sent a three-page letter to Robert Wexler, the university’s president, with copies to 10 Conservative lay and professional leaders.
One recipient characterized the letter as “blistering.”
In the letter, Schorsch objected harshly to the establishment of a second rabbinical school on practical, ideological and personal grounds, and warned of “the grace risk of straining the unity of the [Conservative] movement,’ and “weakening the vital center of American Judaism.”
Schorsch wrote that there is no need for another Conservative rabbinical schools because the JTS, as well as institutions affiliated with other Jewish denominations, are turning out more rabbis than the market can absorb.
“There is a longstanding and well-known overproduction of rabbis in the Orthodox and Reform movements and many of the best graduates from the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College end up in Conservative pulpits,’ Schorsch wrote.
With record enrollment at the JTS rabbinical school, now at about 185 students, and a growing number of graduates working in nonpulpit positions, “there is an unease in the Rabbinical Assembly over our growth,’ he added.
Schorsch also charged in his letter that curricular differences would “regionalize” rabbinical education and put the Los Angeles and New York campuses in direct competition.
The University of Judaism’s plan to offer a four-year curriculum contrasts the five-to six-year program at the JTS, including a full year of study at the Conservative Beit Midrash in Jerusalem.
“The more you seek to differentiate our two institutions, the more you strain the delicate fabric of the [Conservative] movement,’ Schorsch wrote to Wexler.
“The existence of two rabbinical schools in an adversarial relationship and in unseemly competition can only redound to the profound disadvantage of the movement.’
In addition, Schorsch complained that establishment of the rabbinical school in Los Angeles ran counter to longstanding assurances that no such move was contemplated.
Schorsch said in a phone interview that he had received such assurances from Wexler, who became president in 1992, and from the previous president, David Lieber.
Schorsch also said neither he nor the Rabbinical Assembly was consulted beforehand about plans for the new school, but that he was confronted with a “fait accompli” by the University of Judaism.
His letter ended with a plea for collaboration to establish joint guidelines.
Wexler, in an interview, responded to Schorsch’s charges.
Wexler acknowledged that the JTS was instrumental in founding the University of Judaism in 1947 and assisted the new institution financially in its first two decades.
But he stressed that how now considers the university an independent institution.
Wexler said he had alerted Schorsch earlier this year about pressure to establish a full-scale rabbinical school at the university. However, such discussions remained hypothetical, until the unexpected $22 million gift transformed abstract hopes into reality.
A source familiar with the background of the current friction pointed first to the university’s longstanding, two-year rabbinical preparatory program at the Ziegler School.
This program, somewhat akin to a junior college, served a feeder school to the JTS, and brought unprepared students up to speed to enter the seminary.
Despite perceived promises to the contrary, the JTS then established a similar program on its New York campus, drastically reducing the number of students entering the university’s preparatory program, the source said.
The University of Judaism was left with little choice but to either close down its two-year program or evolve into a full rabbinical school, the source said.
Wexler said that far from splintering Conservative education, the expanded Ziegler School would serve not only the special needs of the West but the entire country.
More variety and choice would only strengthen the Conservative movement, Wexler said.
“Nobody thinks that there should be only one law or medical school in the country,” he added.
As to differences in the curriculum, including spending one summer in Israel rather than a full year, Wexler said his program was still evolving and would not take final form until next year.
Wexler said he understood Schorsch’s concerns, adding: “We recognize him as our spiritual head and JTS as the primary school of the Conservative movement.”
These sentiments were echoed by Lieber, the longtime former university president, who said the university’s leadership was working to resolve its difficulties with the JTS and that there was no intention to provoke a split in the Conservative movement.
Lieber will be in a position to play a role in the healing process when he assumes the presidency of the Rabbinical Assembly in May. He will be the first West Coast rabbi named to the post.
Francis Maas, chairman of the University of Judaism’s board of directors, suggested that an underlying cause of friction – in addition to the specific points of contention – might be found in the increasing role and assertiveness of the West Coast in the life of American Jewry, traditionally dominated by the Jewish leadership in New York.
The new school, the first west of the Mississippi River to grant ordination by any Jewish denomination, “shows the maturation of the West,” Maas said. “With an expanded faculty and student body, the Ziegler School will also be a resource for the entire community.”
Last week, the two top leaders of the Rabbinical Assembly, President Alan Silverstein and Executive Vice President Joel Meyers, flew from New York to Los Angeles to meet with Wexler in an effort to calm the troubled waters.
Meyers said that during his two-day mission to Los Angeles, the University of Judaism asked that its graduates be accorded provisional membership in the Rabbinical Assembly.
Meyers said his organization would quickly approve the request.
The assembly now has close to 1,400 members, of whom about 15 percent were ordained as Orthodox, Reform or Reconstructionist rabbis, but now work within Conservative synagogues or institutions.
The question of whether there is a surplus of rabbis in any Jewish denomination was difficult to answer, said Meyers.
There may not be a shortage of congregational rabbis, he said, but many of them “are now exploring options for other career development in communal service, education and chaplaincy.”
As to the conflict between the JTS and the University of Judaism, Meyers said that “our Conservative family tensions show the vitality of the movement.”
But he advised all involved to “step back a little and take a deep breath.”