Grant pushes historic partnership of seminaries

NEW YORK (JTA) — Spurred by a major grant from one of the largest Jewish foundations, the rabbinical seminaries of three major synagogue movements are forging a groundbreaking partnership to train Jewish educators.

The Jim Joseph Foundation announced Monday that it was giving a combined $33 million to the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute for Religion, the Modern Orthodox Yeshiva University and the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary of America.

The grant is aimed at helping the three seminaries attract more teachers to the field of Jewish education and offer them better training.

As a stipulation for receiving the money, each school will be required to use $1 million of the roughly $11 million it receives over the next four years to work with the other schools on figuring out how to market the field of Jewish education to prospective teachers and incorporating modern technology into Jewish pedagogy.

“The presidents of the three institutions, thanks to the Jim Joseph grant process, have spent more time together in the past two years than our predecessors did in the previous decade,” said JTS Chancellor Arnold Eisen. “I think it is historic that you have these three institutions and their leaders working together in this fashion. I think it is good for the Jews and it is a moment.”

Partnerships have become a driver for JTS, which announced in early May that part of its new strategic vision included finding new allies in the education sector.

Hebrew Union College has become a natural ally for the Conservative movement’s seminary. The schools are in the third year of offering a combined fellowship funded by the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Foundation that brings together rabbinical students from both seminaries for a joint seminar, and they also are now offering some joint classes as part of their respective cantorial programs.

But Yeshiva University historically has been a tougher match for both HUC and JTS because of intense theological differences between the Orthodox institution and its non-Orthodox counterparts.

Under the new initiative, each school will continue to teach its own brand of Judaism, but they will cooperate on elements of the educational process that impact all of the institutions.

It’s a message that YU’s president, Richard Joel, is very careful to make: that the schools are working together on practice and not content.

“There was a time a couple of generations ago where liberal Judaism was viewed as a threat because most people were at least nominally Orthodox,” and liberal Judaism was seen as giving Jews a reason to leave Orthodoxy, Joel said. “But I don’t think that is the reality today. The issue isn’t that liberal Judaism will steal people from Orthodoxy. Now it is viewed as something that continues to urge Jews to know something about their story.”

According Jim Joseph’s executive director, Charles Edelsberg, the three schools were scheduled to meet Thursday with representatives from the tech giant Cisco to learn about “telepresence” technology. And they are talking with the MacArthur Foundation about digital media and learning.

In recent years, even before the Jim Joseph grant, the leaders of the three schools — Eisen, Joel and HUC’s Rabbi David Ellenson — had begun to appear on panel discussions together — something that would have been unheard of for much of the last century.

Still, sources at the schools said, even though the collegiality among Eisen, Ellenson and Joel has helped the partnership evolve, the institutions probably would not have come together without the recession and the significant financial carrot offered by Jim Joseph.

When the economy hit a low last year, Jim Joseph stepped up with $12 million to help the struggling schools provide scholarships to students and launch their working relationship. YU will use about  $700,000 per year to help defray the cost of education for students at its Azrieli Graduate School of Jewish Education and Administration and the education program at Stern College, its women’s college, according to Joel. JTS will use approximately $1 million per year to provide scholarships to its nondenominational William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education. And HUC will use about one-third of its grant on financial aid for students seeking master’s degrees at its New York and Los Angeles campuses, according to Ellenson.

Outside of the interschool partnerships, each institution will use the bulk of its grant money on training better teachers.

For YU, that means continuing to beef up its Azrieli school, which has gone from one faculty member to 11 since Joel’s arrival in 2003. The school now has more than 160 students seeking master’s degrees in education. YU also is working on creating a certificate in informal Jewish education and a job placement program for the students it churns out over the next four years.

JTS will use a significant portion of its money to better its early childhood education, including forming a partnership with the Bank Street College of Education, a non-Jewish teachers’ college renowned for its early childhood education, Eisen said. It also will try to set up informal Jewish education programs at congregational and day schools modeled after successful efforts at the Conservative movement’s Ramah camp system. And JTS will create an Israel immersion program for students at the Davidson school.

HUC is planning on starting an executive master’s program and three new certificate programs in Judaica for early childhood educators, Jewish childhood education, and adolescence and emerging adulthood. 

Jim Joseph hopes the schools will graduate 700 to 1,000 teachers during the duration of the grant.

In its first four years, the foundation has given about $220 million to Jewish formal and informal education efforts, including day schools, camps and youth groups, as well as to Birthright Israel and the official follow-up program Birthright Israel NEXT.

In recent weeks, Jim Joseph has announced some $45 million in grants to produce more Jewish teachers, including the $33 million gift to the three seminaries and a recently announced $12 million investment to revive and ramp up a dormant doctoral program in Jewish education at Stanford University. All this is on top of the $12 million that Jim Joseph gave the three seminaries last year primarily for scholarships for advance degree programs in Jewish education and other significant gifts it has made to a doctoral program in Jewish education at New York University.

“This partnership should have a significant impact on the number of future Jewish educators and the skills they will bring to their professions,” the foundation’s president, Al Levitt, said in a news release announcing the grant. “With the help of these grants, we know the institutions can reach their full potential and produce teachers who continue to positively shape the lives of Jewish youth.”

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