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The challenge of training rabbis: Seminary leaders exchange ideas

TARRYTOWN, N.Y., Feb. 11 (JTA) — In a quiet retreat center north of New York City, the leaders of non-Orthodox rabbinical seminaries around the world – – and one which calls itself modern Orthodox — met recently for an unprecedented seminar. A group of 19 presidents, deans and senior faculty from Traditional, Conservative, Reconstructionist, Reform, Jewish Renewal and multi- denominational seminaries gathered together to learn from each other about new approaches to training Jewish communal leaders. At a time of ideological fractiousness among Jews playing out in many arenas, many participants felt that a significant part of the conference’s draw was the fact they were all coming together. “We don’t ever all talk together like this,” said Rabbi Jacob Staub, vice president for academic affairs at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College outside Philadelphia. The two-day Conference on Rabbinic Education, held Feb. 7-9, was organized by an independent consultant, Karen Barth, and was funded by the Nathan Cummings Foundation, Charles and Lynn Schusterman Foundation and others. Participants came from London and Los Angeles, New York and Philadelphia. Some of the schools participating were large and connected to the major denominations, while others were small and independent. They included the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion; the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary and Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the University of Judaism; the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College; the independent Academy for Jewish Religion; and the rabbinical training program connected with the Aleph Alliance for Jewish Renewal. Leaders of the Leo Baeck College came from London and, though scheduling conflicts did not permit their participation this time, leaders of the Seminario, the Conservative school in Buenos Aires, have indicated they want to be involved in future gatherings, Barth said. Barth said she hoped the conference will meet yearly to create an on-going network of seminary leaders. The only non-liberal seminary participating was the Institute for Traditional Judaism’s Metivta, which is connected with the Union for Traditional Judaism. After breaking with the Conservative movement in 1983 when it decided to permit the ordination of women, this group began training its own rabbis in 1991. Rabbi Ronald Price, dean of the Teaneck, N.J.-based Metivta, described his as a “modern Orthodox” institution with “traditional, or open-minded observance.” It currently has 10 students. This was the first time since the break-away group left the Conservative movement that its leadership had met with that of the Jewish Theological Seminary, Price said. Despite the wide range of approaches to Judaism represented at the seminar, participants said they had much in common. “We all face the issue of how we teach our rabbis to go out and educate our laypeople to confront secular values,” Price said in an interview at the conference. There are differences between his students and those at most of the other seminaries, he said, noting that Metivta students enter with stronger fluency in Jewish texts, but are more challenged by the idea of ruling on Jewish law independent of their teachers. But “we don’t have to have anything in common for this to be valuable to us,” Price said of the conference. “This is the first formal framework in which we’ve been able to meet with the spectrum” of Jews. Staub of the Reconstructionist seminary said that although the
faculties of his school meet once a year with those of the Conservative and Reform seminaries, that is a more informal gathering. At the Tarrytown seminar, “these are the policy-makers of the schools, and there’s a lot of wisdom being brought to hear from one another,” he said. The heads of the other rabbinical schools sounded similar themes. “There is such enormous wealth of knowledge and experience within each of the seminaries that we can only benefit from the cross-fertilization that can take place,” said Rabbi Jonathan Magonet, the president of Leo Baeck College. Leo Baeck, which is sponsored by England’s Reform and Liberal movements, has 20 students currently preparing for the rabbinate. For Rabbi Daniel Gordis, dean of rabbinics at the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles, the seminar was attractive because “we all know that the old models of rabbinic training aren’t working that well anymore.” His school, affiliated with the Conservative movement, was founded four years ago when it broke off from being the West Coast branch of the Jewish Theological Seminary. The school, which will ordain its first students next May, currently has about 70 students preparing for the rabbinate. “What people are expecting of their rabbis is changing and what the students come into rabbinical school with is different than it used to be,” said Gordis, who flew in from Israel, where he is spending a sabbatical year, for the conference. Some of these issues surfaced during a session in which participants read Gershom Scholem’s essay on “Three Types of Jewish Piety” and discussed the paradigms he set out as they apply to rabbis and rabbinical students. Themes common to almost all of the participating schools quickly emerged from that discussion: the struggle to train students who enter with varying levels of textual and practical knowledge, and the need to appreciate, and address, students’ desire for a more spirituality-oriented approach to their rabbinic education. In other sessions, attendees heard from leaders of two non-Jewish institutions, the Union Theological Seminary and the Yale Divinity School, about challenges in preparing their students for the ministry and from experts who talked about leadership skills, mentoring and life-long learning. Orthodox seminaries — Yeshiva University in New York and Jews’ College in London — declined an invitation to participate, said Barth, the conference director. “It’s disappointing,” she said. “I would really have loved to bring together people from all denominations.” Rabbi Robert Hirt, vice president of Yeshiva University’s Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary, which has 220 students, said in an interview that it wasn’t opposition to the idea of sitting with leaders from the liberal seminaries that stopped him from participating, but the “amorphous nature” of the conference. He said he might consider participating in the future “if we see exactly what the conference is and see if it has any direct relevance on what we’re doing.”