New JTS Ethics Center: Can We All Just Get Along?


They may be tilting at windmills, given today’s hyper-polarized society, but a rabbi, a professor, a commodities trader and a Broadway producer have teamed up with the Jewish Theological Seminary to create a new center aimed at re-educating Americans about how to talk to one another.

The Hendel Center for Ethics and Justice has the mission of helping the Conservative movement’s flagship institution create leaders who consider civic engagement to be at the core of Judaism.

The center is an expansion of an effort that was started a few years ago by Rabbi Stephanie Ruskay and Professor Yonatan Brafman, who were both interested in expanding the seminary’s focus on ethics and social justice work.

Last month, JTS announced that a Larchmont couple, Ruth and Stephen Hendel, had made enough of a donation to create and endow an official center. (They prefer not to make public the amount of the donation.)

The new center, which Ruskay and Brafman are currently operating from their faculty offices, will have a brick-and-mortar home as soon as JTS completes an overhaul of the campus.

“Social justice, justice and ethics were all key parts of what I was looking for in becoming a religious leader,” Rabbi Ruskay, a JTS alumna, told The Jewish Week in a telephone interview that also included Brafman. “I really came back here … to make JTS a place where we are talking about ethics and justice and training lay leaders, academics and clergy to both think about the issues of the day, bring Jewish texts to bear [on them] and then be wise about: How do you organize for change as you bring your tradition to the real world?”

Brafman added, “It’s not an academic department like Jewish law or Jewish ethics or Bible or Talmud. … This is broader than that. This is thinking about both what’s going on in academic classes and the interfaith area of the Jewish ethics program as well as [offering] practicums, trainings, public events — and that’s what putting it under the rubric of a center does.”

He added that the Hendel gift will allow them “to exponentially extend the work that we’ve been doing” and “take all of these moving parts that have been evolving … and really weld them together.”

The center will also work with graduates, added Rabbi Ruskay. “There are so many talented alumni … who are now out serving and are saying: ‘These are tough times we’re in, there’s a lot of divisiveness, a lot of incivility.’ The center has an opportunity to contribute to how we talk to each other about the most significant issues of the day.”

In this post-2016-presidential-elections era, civic engagement has become a national preoccupation.

The Jewish Education Project’s 2017 annual conference, for example, was devoted to civic engagement with panels on not just how to teach it in a Jewish context but also on how Jewish wisdom, tradition and values can contribute to improving the broader societies in which Jews live.

Stephen Hendel, a commodities trader who has produced, with his wife, Ruth, productions including “Fela!” about Nigerian world music star and activist Fela Kuti, “Ain’t Too Proud” about The Temptations, “Beetlejuice,” “Burn This” and “Fiddler on the Roof in Yiddish,” told The Jewish Week: “We’re in a period of enormous … ethno-nationalism, with a lot of challenges. … It seemed to Ruth and me that a return to the core ethical and justice teachings of Judaism would be a strong way of reorienting Judaism and once again having that message be part of the core conversation of Conservative Judaism.”