Rabbinical seminaries: It’s lonely at the top


NEW YORK, March 20 (JTA) — Add one more position to the list of U.S. Jewish professions advertising vacancies: rabbinic seminary presidents.

While the recently created vacancies at the top of seminaries representing modern Orthodoxy, Reform and Reconstructionism stem from very different situations — ranging from retirement to burnout to scandal — they indicate the increased pressures that U.S. university presidents, both Jewish and non-Jewish, now face.

These increased pressures, which stem mainly from the relentless demands of fund raising, have turned what was once seen as a genteel position into a pressure cooker.

The instability at the top of the rabbinic seminaries comes at a time when there is a shortage of rabbis — and of all Jewish professionals — in all sectors except for the fervently Orthodox world.

On one day — March 14 — Rabbi Norman Lamm, president of the New York-based Yeshiva University, and Rabbi David Teutsch, president of the Philadelphia-based Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, both announced they would leave their posts in the summer of 2002.

Lamm, 73, has been Y.U.’s president since 1976.

In explaining his decision to leave, Lamm told The New York Times that he “didn’t want to be carried out feet first.”

In addition to its rabbinical seminary and undergraduate programs serving Orthodox Jews, Y.U. is a nonsectarian institution with prestigious graduate schools in areas such as law and medicine.

Teutsch has led the far-smaller RRC, which recently expanded its incoming rabbinic class size to 18, since 1993. He said he is leaving the job to devote more time to scholarship, teaching, writing and family.

Both men will stay at their institutions but in less demanding roles.

In a much more sudden move, Rabbi Sheldon Zimmerman — who had been president of the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion since 1996 — resigned in December, shortly after the movement’s rabbinic arm suspended him for sexual misconduct.

The specifics of the alleged misconduct have not been disclosed, although officials in the Reform movement said it occurred before Zimmerman assumed HUC’s presidency.

While a search committee seeks a successor, the university’s provost, Norman Cohen, is serving as acting president.

Based in Cincinnatti, HUC has branches in New York, Los Angeles and Jerusalem.

Lamm, Teutsch and Zimmerman all have been credited with being strong fund raisers, spokesmen and teachers for their movements.

It is not clear who will replace them — or how easy the search for a successor will be. Replacing Lamm is expected to be particularly challenging, because his job requires balancing the needs of highly diverse programs and constituencies at a time when the Orthodox world has become increasingly factionalized.

The turnover in Judaism’s ivory towers comes as many major Jewish institutions are struggling to find and retain top leaders.

Day schools are in national bidding wars for headmasters.

It took the United Jewish Communities, the umbrella organization for federations, over a year to find its top professional. It took another year to find a head for one of its programs, the Israel and Overseas Pillar. And in the past two months, three top professionals have left the UJC.

The Orthodox Union, simultaneously the umbrella for almost 1,000 synagogues and a massive kashrut certification body, is seeking a new executive vice president in the wake of a scandal over a youth group professional accused of sexual abuse.

And a new philanthropy promoting synagogue renewal has been searching for an executive director since September.

The presidential vacancies also reflect a trend in academia in general, with presidents of U.S. universities serving considerably shorter terms than in the past. Presidents at Harvard, Brown, Columbia and New York University — among others — have resigned in the past year.

Presiding over such institutions, including Jewish seminaries and universities, is much more demanding than it used to be, many observers say.

University presidents are pressured “to become fund-raising machines,” said Jack Wertheimer, a professor of American Jewish history and the provost of the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary.

High-level donors are less loyal to any one institution and are demanding more “face time” with presidents than in the past, Wertheimer said.

The fact that most presidents come from scholarly — and in the case of the seminary presidents, spiritual — backgrounds often makes the emphasis on fund-raising frustrating, Wertheimer said.

Fund-raising pressures also are causing many presidents to remain silent on key social and religious issues, Wertheimer said, for fear of alienating donors.

The multiple pressures, particularly the fund-raising demands, forced Teutsch regularly to work 15-hour days.

Heading a university is “no longer the elegant and highly reflective position it was in the days when the funding situation was different,” Teutsch said.

Jewish organizations also are being affected by a general shift in expectations for top professionals, said Jonathan Sarna, a professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University.

“The old tradition where you had leaders there 10 to 20 years, that’s more and more unusual,” Sarna said. “Partly because they have tough lay boards that, following the corporate model, feel if you have a bad quarter or year, then it’s time for a change.”

In addition, observers say, Jewish leaders — like all American leaders — are being subjected to much higher levels of personal scrutiny than in the past.

“Perhaps our expectation of what leaders should be exceeds the reality, and such people don’t really exist,” Sarna said. “Leaders are under a constant spotlight, and no one looks glamorous when under the spotlight all the time.”

The Jewish community, Sarna said, is much better educated and more sophisticated than in the past, and therefore “much less likely to deify a leader.”

Past American Jewish heroes, like Reform Rabbi Stephen Wise, would “never survive today,” Sarna said, noting that there were rumors — largely ignored during Wise’s time — that he had extramarital affairs.

So what does all this mean for the American Jewish community?

It’s not all bad, some observers say.

Change “can be a salutary thing,” Teutsch said.

“One reason people recommend CEOs not stay in a position more than a decade is that institutional renewal depends on a certain amount of turnover in leadership,” Teutsch said. “In a world changing so rapidly, seminaries have to change more rapidly than ever before if they’re going to keep up.”

Rabbi Irwin Kula, president of CLAL: The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, said the culture of mobility and change is a broad transition likely to leave a significant mark on Jewish life.

“The same way people join synagogues, leave synagogues and have episodic relationships with Jewish institutions, leadership is going to have episodic relationships with institutions too,” Kula said.

“The upside is, we will have an energy infusion on a regular basis. The downside is that stability will be undermined, and there will be a wrenching quality in institutional life.”

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