On the eve of the first anniversary of his inauguration as chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, Arnold Eisen remains optimistic about the movement, acknowledging its problems but enthusiastic about the course he has helped set for its future.
Noting that the number of Conservative Jews is diminishing in the U.S., Eisen acknowledged in an interview that “we do have major demographic challenges,” losing members to both the Orthodox and Reform, and that the movement is in need of more structural coherence on the national level, saying “our current organizational structure hurts us in providing quality.”
But he insisted that “even though we don’t have the numbers, we are thriving, and this movement is not about to die.”
Eisen was responding to widespread speculation in some quarters that, based on demographics, lack of ritual commitment among many members, and spiritual ennui, Conservative Judaism in America is doomed.
The 2000 National Jewish Population Study found the percentage of Conservative Jews affiliated with synagogues was 33 percent, down from 43 percent a decade earlier, and no longer the largest denomination in the country. And the sense is that the downward trend is continuing, exacerbated by the deep split in the movement over policy toward halacha (Jewish law) in general, and specifically over admitting gay and lesbian rabbis to its rabbinical school (which Eisen approved last year).
Some of the best and brightest products of the movement’s Solomon Schechter day schools and Ramah summer camps have become Orthodox, while others have become leaders of the growing number of independent minyanim around the country which eschew denominational labels. And less observant Conservative Jews have drifted to the Reform camp, which is not bound by observance of commandments and is now the largest denomination.
So when Eisen, a highly respected professor of American Jewish history at Stanford University, was chosen to succeed the rabbinic scholar Ismar Schorsch as JTS chancellor, the pressure was on him to reverse the disturbing trends, bring unity to the movement and inspire its constituents.
A tall, if not impossible, order, particularly in a short time.
After a year on the job, Eisen is given high marks across the board for his intellect, commitment, warm personality and ability to generate enthusiasm. But questions remain about whether he can translate those qualities into reinvigorating the movement and clarify its goals and purpose.
Budget ‘Too Ambitious’
The fact that Eisen is not a rabbi or had no previous experience with serious fundraising has not been a real problem, he said, adding that he enjoys meeting with major supporters of JTS, explaining the importance of its mission and using his teaching skills to make his case.
Recent reports of financial troubles at JTS were exaggerated, he said, referring to a Jewish Week article in June reporting a $2.2 million budget shortfall and the possibility of cuts in adjunct faculty positions. Eisen explained that last year’s budget was “in retrospect too ambitious.” It called for a 17 percent increase — far beyond the normal 4 or 5 percent — and fell short, but still reflected an increase in fundraising over the previous year, he said, though specific figures have not been disclosed.
This year’s is a deficit budget, but ‘09-‘10 will be a balanced one, he added.
One department chair at JTS said the feeling of belt-tightening was pervasive, complaining that “we are being nickeled and dimed” about low-budget items, like being told to avoid offering food at faculty meetings.
“Why not save costs on the high levels of spending?” the chairman asked, adding that “there’s a lower sense of expectations” about outlays of expenses.
Others say it is simply good management to review and cut back on expenditures during difficult economic times.
A more abstract, and perhaps more difficult, issue to deal with is the sense that Conservative Judaism has run out of ideological steam, that it lacks a direct and coherent definition and message for the 21st century.
“I’m waiting for the chancellor to create a compelling vision for Conservative Judaism today,” said Rabbi Judith Hauptman, a professor of Talmud at JTS who is enthusiastic about Eisen’s leadership qualities. “Young people are asking themselves ‘which movement is reaching out to me, which is articulating my needs?’ And as a lifelong Conservative Jew, I don’t know what Conservative Judaism is all about in 2008. I know what it stood for 50 years ago, but we need to be able to say in three sentences why choose Conservative Judaism now.”
Eisen has said that there are multiple sources of authority for Conservative Jews, seeking to balance tradition and modernity, and that the primary issue is determining “what the tradition as a whole commands us to do.”
The major initiative of his first year in office has been a pilot project on the subject of mitzvot, an attempt to bring all elements of the movement closer together by studying and discussing what it means to be commanded and how that responsibility is undertaken.
It began with a few synagogues and schools and will be expanded across the movement, he said. “We are engaged in a common conversation. To me, there is no Judaism without mitzvah.”
He appears to be leading the movement toward a notion of mitzvah as a less abstract, more personal sense of engagement and obligation.
“It’s about transcending formerly cherished boundaries, preserving meaningful Judaism in culturally challenging times,” noted Steven M. Cohen, a sociologist who co-authored a book, “The Jew Within,” with Eisen in 2000, and sees him as a source of positive change.
Eisen said JTS is fulfilling its role in the mitzvah initiative by providing “intellectual and spiritual resources,” with an emphasis on helping to free people of the notion that Judaism is more about laws than love.
It’s about both, Eisen says, noting that even in a society that cherishes personal freedom, everyone accepts responsibility in some form, whether it is performing a ritual commandment or supporting one’s family, giving charity or contributing to Israel. He has sought to frame the discussion in a way that shows that many of the things we do for others each day are religious acts — mitzvoth — and he believes “most people ‘get it.’
“If you take a broad approach to observance,” he said, “there is a lot of it out there in the Conservative movement, and a lot of desire to do more.”
Striving For Unity
In his numerous travels around the country this year — some say he was away from JTS too much — Eisen addressed and met with lay leaders and congregants in dozens of synagogues, and was heartened by what he found, asserting that many of them are highly successful and doing very well.
“I know what we are doing right. We know that people flock to quality, and you can fix the things that are wrong,” Eisen said. “We have work to do, but it’s not a crisis.
“As a scholar, I don’t lose sleep over the future of American Jewry, though we are losing numbers,” he continued, describing the community as “smaller but more active.”
He added that he does lose sleep over Israel, which faces an existential threat from a nuclear Iran, deep divisions within Israeli society and a distancing from American Jewry.
He said the biggest surprise in his job, to date, has been how much time he has devoted to the various components of the Conservative movement, most notably the Schechter schools.
“Most are doing fine, but there are questions of direction and philosophy,” Eisen said. (A local setback was the closing last year of the Schechter high school in Teaneck, N.J., serving Manhattan and Bergen County, N.J.)
He said he plans to address the “current structure” of the national movement, including the Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs, Women’s League for Conservative Judaism, Rabbinical Assembly, United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, Schechter schools, Ramah camps, and JTS, which he finds too diffuse and costly, and preventing unity.
He helped consolidate those voices into one quarterly magazine, Voices of Conservative/Masorti Judaism. And with the planned retirement next year of Rabbi Joel Meyers and Rabbi Jerome Epstein, the longtime professional heads of the Rabbinical Assembly and United Synagogue, respectively, Eisen will have an opportunity to help select their successors, no doubt seeking leaders who share his vision.
He already has had a say in filling several key posts at JTS, but a year from now he and his colleagues will be facing potential competition from a new front, with the planned opening of Yeshivat Hadar, an outgrowth of the independent prayer groups that emphasizes spiritual development, prayer and social action along with classical Judaic study. It will offer a one-year, non-degree program, and is seeking to educate lay people, not future rabbis.
Some say Eisen has tried to co-opt leaders of Hadar, several of whom were ordained or taught at JTS, by offering them positions at the school. But Rabbi Elie Kaunfer, a co-founder of the Hadar program, credits Eisen with being “as supportive as one can imagine,” noting: “He is a real ally in putting Torah rather than movements back at the center of American Jewish life.”
As an expert on American Judaism, Eisen knows full well the trend among younger Jews away from institutions and denominations toward openness and choice. But there is a great deal of hope among Jewish leaders in and out of the movement that he will succeed in convincing Conservative Jews to — in the spirit of his 1997 book, “Taking Hold Of Torah” — feel personally empowered to blend Jewish tradition and their own personal quests.
In the meantime, Eisen wants everyone to know he is “still standing” after a year in the job “and still smiling.
“This is the greatest work I could imagine,” he says, “and after all those years studying American Jews, I feel I finally can make a direct contribution in Jewish education.”