Arnold Eisen, a career academic who as chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary for the last 12 years is credited with having stabilized, strengthened, and expanded the institution, plans to step down from his post at the end of the 2019-2020 academic year and teach full-time at JTS.
Eisen, 68, a lifelong Conservative layman who left a distinguished career as a professor of Jewish culture and religion at Stanford University to become chancellor, has focused his efforts on making JTS and Judaism more relevant at a time when younger people are less inclined to affiliate with synagogues or other Jewish institutions, which are often seen as staid and boring.
In an exclusive interview prior to last week’s announcement that he was stepping down, Eisen said, “I still love coming to work every day, but it is a good time to leave,” noting that the Conservative movement’s seminary is enjoying a period of growth and he is looking forward to writing “one or two more books” and getting back to the classroom. “I’ll be seeing my colleagues and students more, not less,” he said.
Among his books are “The Jew Within: Self, Family and Community in America,” co-authored with Steven M. Cohen (2000); “Rethinking Modern Judaism: Ritual, Commandments, Community” (1998), which won the Koret Book Award; and “Galut: Modern Jewish Reflection on Homelessness and Homecoming” (1986), which won the National Jewish Book Award.
Eisen recalled that when he first came to the seminary “as a Conservative Jew who sat in the pews, I saw that we needed to make Judaism, and religious services, more spiritually meaningful” and respond to young people’s passion for social justice.
As a result, among his initiatives are projects for spiritual arts to enhance the synagogue experience, and a center for justice and ethics. But the study and observance of sacred Jewish texts has always been a priority.
“My emphasis is on Torah for our time,” Eisen said, “and despite some controversy, I chose the motto used by [pioneering 19th-century Jewish educator] Solomon Schechter, ‘scholarship for the sake of Torah.’ I wanted the institution to reflect that, and I think it does. I’m not disappointed in what I did.”
Eisen’s colleagues and other observers are more fulsome in their praise.
Jonathan Sarna, professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University, said Eisen “has played an historic role as a scholar, leader, and role model within the American-Jewish community. His tenure as chancellor has invigorated both JTS and Jewish life as a whole.” Noting that Eisen came to his position at “a very difficult time” financially for the institution, Sarna told NJJN that Eisen “steered it through the devastating recession of 2008,” a move he called “heroic.”
Rabbi Sharon Brous of Ikar, a congregation in Los Angeles, called Eisen’s leadership “brilliant, brave, openhearted, and humble,” and Martha Minow, former dean of Harvard Law School, described the chancellor as “mensch-in-chief” who has “imbued menschlichkeit into the institution and paved the path of integrity in changing times.”
Though Eisen was widely respected during his Stanford years as a thoughtful observer of and commentator on modern Jewish life, there were those who were skeptical when he was chosen as JTS chancellor; unlike his six predecessors, he is not a rabbi, and he had not led a large institution. But Eisen points with pride to the fact that during his tenure management of the seminary has been professionalized and the endowment has been increased. He said that financially, “we’re doing fine.” (JTS officials said the endowment figures are private.)
While the Conservative movement over the last dozen years has declined statistically — in membership number of adherents, number of synagogues, and Solomon Schechter day schools — the seminary, which trains rabbis, cantors, lay leaders, and scholars, has continued to attract quality faculty and students. And Eisen changed the content and look of JTS by transforming the curriculum and the campus itself.
He initiated a major construction project on the campus site at Broadway and 122nd Street, due to be completed next spring, that will include a residence facility, atrium, auditorium/performance space, and state-of-the-art home for its historic library. In addition, the curriculum has been transformed to meet today’s needs, Eisen said. He noted that the seminary, once seen as an ivory tower of academia, now includes a pastoral institute that requires 400 class hours so that graduating clergy will be more effective in relating to congregants personally.
Unlike his predecessors, who were from immigrant, Orthodox families, the chancellor grew up in Philadelphia and is a product of the Conservative movement. He knows its strengths and challenges from the inside, and as both a religious pluralist and one who adheres to halacha (Jewish law), acknowledges that a key concern today remains dealing with intermarriage. More specifically, the internal debate over the movement’s prohibition against its rabbis officiating at interfaith ceremonies, which they are now allowed to attend.
The rabbis of Bnai Jeshurun on the Upper West Side and Amichai Lau-Lavie of the experimental Lab/Shul downtown announced last year that they would officiate at such weddings, and in doing so were forced to give up their membership in the movement’s Rabbinical Assembly.
“So far it’s only a few,” Eisen said, adding, “I don’t want to see Conservative Judaism splitting” over this issue. “The center has to hold.”
He believes the center of the movement “is holding because that’s where a large number of Jews are.”
In 2007, when Eisen came to JTS, a major point of contention was rabbinic ordination for gay and lesbian Jews. In researching the sentiment of the movement, he said he found that about 70 percent of both lay members and Conservative rabbis favored acceptance, and it was accomplished with little dissension.
“It was the result of a long halachic process,” Eisen said, “not just based on polling, but organically coming from the Torah tradition. And there is a lot of consensus on this today,” he added.
Though Israeli policy has divided much of the American-Jewish community, Eisen said “there is very little non-Zionism or anti-Zionism in our movement.” There is a widespread sense that “we need a strong Israel.”
What worries him most, he said, are “Hezbollah rockets and Hamas tunnels” and the constant threats to Israeli society. “I’m not worried about the future of American Jewry. We’re more than holding our own,” he said. Assimilation is a concern on a personal level, “but not because our numbers are going down. We value every Jew, and I would like to do more outreach to non-Jews, but what counts is activism and quality.”
Eisen, as a career academic, surprised many in bringing a strong sense of activism to his role as chancellor. He said his field of scholarship — modern Jewish thought — was closely related to his goal of “serving a cause here” at the seminary and “doing all I can to help Jews keep tradition relevant and vital.”
As a search for Eisen’s successor begins, a major decision facing the seminary, according to Brandeis’ Sarna, is whether “they will be looking for someone who comes out of the movement and really focuses on that constituency” or whether the search will be widened to include what he calls “the new center, or big tent Conservative Judaism,” a broader, robust, and less parochial segment that is “growing more influential.” It includes groups like Hadar, the Shalom Hartman Institute, and the Jewish Emergent Network, whose leaders are closely aligned with and often the product of the Conservative movement, deeply interested in Jewish learning and text, but in some cases less strictly bound by halacha and looser in style.
“The outcome will be enormously important for American Judaism,” Sarna said. Chancellor Eisen “wasn’t able to turn the Conservative movement around,” he observed, “and maybe nobody could.” But he will be remembered for his “learning, leadership, and stature” in “righting the ship.”
Gary Rosenblatt is editor and publisher of The New York Jewish Week, NJJN’s sister publication. He can be reached at Gary@jewishweek.org.