Dr. Shuly Rubin Schwartz was named chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, the first woman to serve in the role in the 134-year history of the Conservative movement’s flagship academic institution.
Currently provost at JTS, Schwartz is a historian who has served as dean of List College, JTS’s undergraduate dual-degree program with Barnard and Columbia. She succeeds Arnold Eisen, who in 2007 became the seventh chancellor, and first non-rabbi, to serve in the role.
In an interview with The Jewish Week, Dr. Schwartz said she appreciated the significance of her being the first woman to head the institution, but also said that given her long association with JTS “it made perfect sense.”
Her first priority, she said, would be to navigate the institution — which includes undergraduate and graduate programs, as well as the seminary — through the Covid-19 crisis.
“I would say that is our immediate challenge, because, first and foremost, we’ve an obligation to our students,” said Schwartz. “Whether it’s organizational structure, the finance, faculty, all things, this is certainly something we’re monitoring closely.”
As provost, said JTS, she played an instrumental role in guiding the school’s transition to virtual learning amid the Covid-19 outbreak.
She expects the campus in Upper Manhattan to be partly open in September, although learning will be a mix of face-to-face and remote instruction. Enrollment, she said, is “good. But, again, we’re living in an ever-changing moment. I think it’s going to take time to really understand what the impact of this pandemic will have.”
Schwartz, who grew up in Wantagh, Long Island, and lives on the Upper West Side, said she has a lifelong connection to JTS: Her grandfather graduated from its Teacher’s Institute 100 years ago, and both her parents were graduates. Her father, Rabbi Mordecai Rubin, served as spiritual leader of what was then the Wantagh Jewish Center from 1951-1991. Her late husband, Rabbi Gershon Schwartz, who died in 2004, was a pulpit rabbi who was ordained at JTS. Their son, a Jewish educator, was also ordained there.
As dean of List, the school said, Schwartz “strengthened the college’s dual-degree programs” and launched social justice engagement iniitiatives, including the yearlong Fellowship in Jewish Social Entrepreneurship and JustCity, a high school summer program. She was instrumental in the rise of gender studies at the institution.
For the past 10 years, Dr. Schwartz has also served as dean of the Gershon Kekst Graduate School, where she was credited with the creation of an MA program in Jewish ethics, a joint Jewish ethics MA/MPH with Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health, and a new certificate program in ethics and social justice. She has continued to teach American Jewish history; her study of the role of rabbis’ wives in the development of American Jewry, “The Rabbi’s Wife,” won the National Jewish Book Award in 2006.
In an interview, she described Conservative Judaism as “the stream of Judaism that struggles with nuance in ways in which movements on the extremes do not. [We ask] what it means to be a modern Jew, to be deeply tied to tradition and to care about halacha, and yet to live fully in the modern world and to do so” in an expansive way and “not in a compartmentalized fashion.”
Asked about the seminary’s relationship with Israel, especially at a time of ideological strains between North America’s largely liberal Jewish community and Israel’s right-leaning body politic, she spoke of her family’s own Zionist roots, going back to a great-grandfather who insisted on speaking Hebrew at home in Eastern Europe. “My ties to the State of Israel are my joy, and my pride at the existence of the State of Israel is boundless,” she said.
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In describing broader trends, she used the metaphor of family.
“Any and all conversations about the complexity of the State of Israel today, the politics of the State of Israel, all of those conversations, need to be had from a place of connection and commitment to the Israeli part of the Jewish people. In other words, we are all one people and one family. There are lots of things I don’t like about my family but they’re my family. I love them.”
Asked if she would suggest a motto that would guide her tenure as chancellor, she laughingly declined. But she acknowledged that the name “Conservative,” given what it means in general parlance, is “an unfortunately misleading term.
“I’m more concerned with ideas and visions and less concerned with the name,” she said. “If [our vision] resonates and works and enriches people’s lives, that’s what we want. We want to offer a meaningful, rich, vibrant, learned Judaism. And if we do that, whatever we call it, that’s good. We should do more of it.”