NEWTON, Mass. (JTA) — The first woman to lead the near-century-old Hebrew College was formally installed in a ceremony that paid tribute to her legacy as a humble and influential rabbinic teacher, and as a transformative leader on the role of women in Jewish life.
Rabbi Sharon Cohen Anisfeld on Monday was affirmed as the suburban Boston school’s ninth president by its rector, Rabbi Arthur Green, before a crowd of some 600 people including religious and educational leaders from across the country who filled the Temple Emanuel sanctuary not far from the Hebrew College campus.
“We’re living in a time when so much conspires to make us feel alone and untethered,” Anisfeld said. “In a world that is fractured and frayed, we are — we must be — witnesses to a deeper truth. One of connection and compassion. One of humility and hope. This is our sacred mission at Hebrew College. And never has it been more vitally important.”
Ordained in 1990 as a Reconstructionist rabbi, Anisfeld was appointed to the position in November and began serving as acting president in January, succeeding Rabbi Daniel Lehmann, who stepped down after nearly a decade. She had served as the dean of the school’s pluralistic rabbinical school for a dozen years. In her last year in the position, the school admitted the largest single incoming class of any single-campus rabbinical school in the country, according to the college.
Shortly after Anisfeld took the helm in July, the college announced it had sold its landmark campus in a bold move to shed a lingering $7.4 million debt that had drained its budget for a decade.
The eclectic crowd was a testament to Anisfeld’s array of colleagues and ability to bring unique qualities to the table, according to Jonathan Sarna, a noted scholar of American Jewish history at Brandeis University and a Hebrew College graduate.
“There are only a small number of leaders … who everybody likes and respects and seem to have ties across the spectrum. Sharon is one of those people,” Sarna told JTA.
Sarna said that by the 1990s, while similar Jewish institutions were shuttered or merged, Hebrew College stayed ahead of the curve by creating innovative adult education programs such as Me’ah, and launching the pluralistic rabbinical program. He said the challenge for Anisfeld is to maintain and grow those programs.
Anisfeld is expected to bolster its online technology, including for its Prozdor secondary school program that has declined in recent years.
A current female rabbinical student said it was exciting for the college to have its first female president.
“It’s a way the college can stand by its feminist values,” Giulia Fleishman told JTA.
Noting the wall of portraits of the school’s all-male past presidents, Fleishman said “It’s great to have the leadership now reflect the student body that may be half women.”