Reform, Conservative Seminaries in Historic Partnership to Train Clergy

The largest Conservative and Reform seminaries are partnering in a rabbinic training program that officials from both schools say is the first to provide joint instruction to future clergy from different movements.

The program, funded by the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, will provide eight students from the Jewish Theological Seminary and Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion with funds for tuition and living stipends for two years while they receive professional skills training

Though the course of study will not focus on textual and theological areas, where differences between the movements are sharpest, the program nevertheless signals an increased willingness to cooperate across denominational lines.

“We don’t have the luxury of infinite resources,” JTS Chancellor Arnold Eisen told JTA. “There’s also a positive good in strengthening the Jewish people, and that is accomplished by having our leaders get to know one another, learn from one another, respect one another.”

Eisen said “exploratory discussions” were under way for similar initiatives with other seminaries, but he declined to elaborate.

The partnership comes at a time when the historically rigid lines between the denominations have begun to blur.

In May, Hebrew College in Boston graduated the first class from its recently established rabbinical school, billed as the world’s first transdenominational rabbinic training program. And recent years have seen the rise of countless independent prayer communities across the country that are not easily classifiable in traditional denominational terms.

JTS and HUC also have established a joint chair in Israel studies, though it’s not clear if the position will be filled in the coming academic year.

“I do think we live in an age where there is much greater permeability among denominations than was present in previous generations,” said Rabbi David Ellenson, the president of HUC.

Ellenson said part of the reason is the decline in social and economics gaps that once separated the denominations.

Ellenson and Eisen both stress that important distinctions remain between the Conservative and Reform movements, and that the growing partnership between the schools does not represent an effort to erase those differences. Rather, they say, certain communal challenges transcend those differences and ought to be addressed jointly.

Still, Eisen acknowledged it would have been difficult to imagine such a partnership in an earlier era.

“I think if you go back decades, there was a feeling that people scored points at the expense of the other,” he said. “We’re not going to do that.”

The Schusterman Rabbinical Fellowship will provide training in three major areas, according to Rabbi Hayim Herring, the executive direction of Synagogues: Transformation and Renewal, or STAR, who has helped develop the curriculum.

One part is demographics and Jewish communal trends. Another is management and organizational leadership. And the last is inclusion, with an emphasis on the intermarried.

The inclusion area is one where differences between Conservative and Reform attitudes are probably the most acute.

Reform Jews consider the children of intermarried couples to be Jewish, provided they are raised as Jews, while Conservative Jews do so only if the mother is Jewish or the children have undergone a conversion.

Different approaches also exist within and between denominations toward the awarding of synagogue honors to non-Jewish spouses.

“Part of what we hope to achieve is increased understanding,” Herring said. “I think it puts us in a great position to model how to have a conversation which is, in the words of the rabbis, ‘l’shem shamayim,’ or for the sake of heaven.

“What we’re trying to do is not persuade one another. I think we’re going to have some really interesting discussions and I hope they’ll be provocative in the best sense of the word.”

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