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Ziegler-Schechter split highlights Conservative divisions

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Rabbi Bradley Artson said the Ziegler School had pedagogical differences with its former Israel partner, Machon Schechter. (American Jewish University)

Rabbi Bradley Artson said the Ziegler School had pedagogical differences with its former Israel partner, Machon Schechter. (American Jewish University)

NEW YORK (JTA) — In a further sign that the American and international wings of the Conservative movement are moving in different ideological directions, a Los Angeles rabbinical seminary has ended its longstanding residency program with Machon Schechter in Jerusalem, the only institution that ordains Conservative rabbis in Israel.

Beginning this fall, third-year students at the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies will spend their Israel year at the Conservative Yeshiva, a co-educational institute for Diaspora Jews housed at the Fuchsberg Center of the United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism, the movement’s North American synagogue umbrella. The change was announced last week in a memo to the United Synagogue’s staff and board members.

"The Ziegler School and the Conservative Yeshiva share a common pedagogical philosophy — integrating academic rigor, emotional engagement, and spiritual yearning," Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, Ziegler’s dean, said in a statement appended to the memo.

Both American Conservative seminaries — Ziegler and the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York — are known to have ideological differences with Schechter’s rabbinical school, whose dean, Rabbi Einat Ramon, has been an outspoken critic of the movement’s liberalizing attitude toward gays and lesbians.

Ramon has declined to follow the lead of the American schools, both of which changed their policies to admit openly gay and lesbian students following a decision by the movement’s Jewish law authorities in late 2006 paving the way for such a move. Seminario Rabinico Latinoamericano, the movement’s seminary in Argentina, also declined to change its policies.

Artson declined to comment beyond his statement in the United Synagogue memo on the reasons for the change. But in an interview with JTA last year, he responded to reports that students at Ziegler, the first Conservative seminary to adjust its admissions policy, were uncomfortable with the prospect of studying at Schechter.

"I’ve already launched conversations with Machon Schechter about the need to attend to there being real pluralism and that our students feel truly welcome," Artson told JTA. "We need to see significant progress on those issues. What I’ve discussed with Schechter is that our students have to not be tolerated guests. They need to feel a rapport. They need to feel that they are fully welcome."

Rabbi David Golinkin, Schechter’s president, said the school had attempted to make adjustments to its courses in response to what he described as Ziegler’s "unique approach" to training rabbis, but that ultimately those efforts came to naught.

"We’ve been told repeatedly by the people at Ziegler that this is not about the gay issue," Golinkin told JTA. "We take them at their word."

Others in the movement are less convinced. They point to a controversy that arose just over a year ago, when visiting American students at Schechter organized a ceremony to mark the one-year anniversary of the decision to permit gay ordination, but then decided to move the event off campus. The spat crystallized the discomfort of many Ziegler and JTS students, gay and straight, at the prospect of spending a year at Schechter, which is required under the present system.

They also point to an article Artson penned in the current issue of Voices of Conservative/Masorti Judaism in which he asserted that "halachic pluralism" — the idea that conflicting approaches to Jewish law can coexist — "precludes the option of continuing to postpone the day when all of our brothers and sisters, regardless of their orientation, are welcomed fully as part of the rich fabric of Jewish culture and Jewish life."

The American and international arms of the Conservative movement have drifted apart gradually on a number of hot-button questions in recent years, including the status of non-egalitarian congregations. Last year, three Toronto-area synagogues — none of which fully embraces egalitarian worship — cited a number of factors in explaining their decision to break off from the United Synagogue, including financial concerns and "philosophical differences" they felt were marginalizing the more traditional-leaning Canadian congregations.

Beyond their varying ideological approaches are what insiders see as differing styles with respect to rabbinic training. Ziegler is seen as having embraced a wider and more holistic approach to rabbinical education while JTS, which is in the process of a major overhaul of its rabbinical curriculum, is believed to be heading in a similar direction.

At Schechter, sources say, the educational approach remains more firmly in the academically oriented mold once exemplified by JTS. Schechter is also said to be preoccupied with asserting itself in the Israeli religious world and with holding the line against the liberalizing tendencies of the Americans.

"People at Schechter feel that the Conservative movement has taken a wrong turn, that the Conservative movement in America has made a move toward being indistinguishable from the Reform and the Reconstructionist, from the other liberal movements," said one Conservative rabbi who favors gay ordination. "They view themselves as the last anchor of true Conservative Judaism and they will not be swayed."

Golinkin denied both assertions.

"I don’t take halachic positions in order to hold lines," he said.

Officials at Schechter and JTS, the movement’s flagship institution, have been in discussions over a number issues raised by their differing admissions policies as well as the seminary’s new curriculum.

Neither Golinkin nor Rabbi Danny Nevins, the recently installed dean of the JTS rabbinical school, would comment on the content of those discussions.

Nevins, however, did tell JTA that while the seminary is committed to "cooperation" with Schechter, "we will also be expanding our partnership" with the Israeli branch of the Conservative synagogue movement, known as Masorti, "as well as with other Israeli organizations."

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