What If Reform’s Leader Had Gone To JTS?


The current leader of the Reform movement found deep Jewish inspiration as a young man from a Modern Orthodox scholar in Israel. The Talmud professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary attended a haredi yeshiva in his youth and found it “wonderful.”

And the Reconstructionist rabbi who heads the JCC in Manhattan said her Zionism is rooted in the fact that when she was 15 and visiting Israel, she discovered she was allowed to drink.

Those were among the revelations at a panel discussion on Jewish pluralism held at Congregation Beth Elohim (CBE) in Brooklyn last Thursday evening, sponsored by the Reform temple and The Jewish Week.

Rabbi Andy Bachman of CBE moderated the program before a rapt audience of several hundred.

With the exception of Rabbi Asher Lopatin, who this summer will succeed Rabbi Avi Weiss to head Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, an “open Orthodox” rabbinic seminary here, the panelists had diverse religious paths in their formative years.

Rabbi Lopatin said he is “second generation Modern Orthodox,” and has remained in that tradition, noting almost sheepishly, “in some ways I’m kind of dull.”

Rabbi David Hoffman, the JTS professor who attended a haredi yeshiva in his youth, later moved on to a Solomon Schechter day school before spending a year in Israel, where he found Zionism holding a stronger appeal for him than religious observance. Back in New York and enrolled at the Seminary, he said he was not religious but loved studying Talmud.

“It was an eclectic journey,” he said.

Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, spent a year at Hebrew University in Jerusalem and said that, on attending a seminar by Rabbi David Hartman of the Shalom Hartman Institute, “it was as if someone turned on the light for me and tore apart my preconceptions of Jewish tradition.”

Rabbi Jacobs considered each of the denominational rabbinic schools before choosing Hebrew Union College (Reform), because he was seeking the path of “openness” to find his way.

Rabbi Joy Levitt, executive director of the JCC in Manhattan, grew up in a small town with very few Jews, loved Hebrew school and had an epiphany of sorts when she was 14 and learned that her rabbi had been arrested in Selma, Ala., for taking part in civil rights demonstrations.

“It was an amazing moment of understanding of what Judaism was and what [the work of] a rabbi might be,” she recalled.

In 1974 she applied to the rabbinical school at JTS, only to learn that women at the time were not admitted. “That was a radicalizing moment,” she said, and earned her ordination at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, serving in the pulpit for two decades.

Rabbi David Ellenson, president of HUC-JIR, the Reform rabbinical school, grew up in an Orthodox congregation in Newport News, Va., attended an Orthodox day school through fifth grade and fell in love with Hebrew.

When it came time for rabbinical school he applied to the Conservative, Reconstructionist and Reform programs, and it was his Orthodox father who convinced him that if he wanted to make a living as a rabbi, he should go to HUC.

Rabbi Ellenson’s academic scholarship is rooted in 19th-century Orthodoxy, and he says he is “still working out issues” of theology decades later.