Rabbi Justus Baird has always been inspired by the story of Rabbi Akiba, the sage who only began studying Torah at 40.
“As a person who had no Jewish learning until I was a young adult,” Baird said, he has welcomed every opportunity “to upgrade my rabbinate with more Torah learning.”
His latest chance comes from the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. Baird, who is dean of Auburn Theological Seminary in New York, a Christian institution committed to multi-faith religious education, is one of 27 North American rabbis chosen this year to participate in the institute’s Rabbinic Leadership Initiative.
The program, the fifth since its founding in 2000, involves three years of part-time study, reflection, and professional development in Israel and at home. Baird, who lives in Princeton with his wife, Rabbi Julie Roth, and their three small children, is currently in Israel for the first phase.
Baird studied at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. “There I learned to sail on the great ocean of Jewish tradition,” he wrote in an e-mail. The Hartman program, he continued, offers “the chance to study with a diverse and talented group of rabbis, access to some of the greatest living oceanographers of the sea of Torah, and an inspired curriculum of great Jewish texts.”
Baird has been part of and has led a number of leadership and learning programs for religious leaders. He also founded the Yerusha family education program in central New Jersey.
The Hartman program, he said, “is impressively pluralistic. Second, the teachers are talmidei hahamim (wise Torah scholars) more than academics. By that I mean they take their cues from Jewish tradition and not university guilds. Third, the rigor of the program means I will be investing deeply in my own rabbinic knowledge and leadership.”
Roth, who is the executive director of the Center for Jewish Life/Hillel at Princeton University, is also studying in a Hartman program, for Hillel professionals.
“The chance to learn in Jerusalem with my family around me is priceless,” Baird said. “I’ve lived in Israel for two years and visited frequently, but being here with small children is radically different. I’ve carried my daughter’s stroller up more stairs than I care to admit. It has been difficult to relocate our young family for the month, but I would do it again in a second.”
As for the interface between his permanent post and the Hartman training, Baird said, “The Auburn Seminary and the Hartman Institute are in the same business: equipping religious leaders for the 21st century. At Hartman, that mission is realized through deep, pluralistic Torah learning — especially for Jews, but also for Christian leaders.
“At Auburn we educate and equip religious leaders to engage in social justice work. My experience at Hartman will only sharpen my capacity to equip bold leaders who bridge religious divides and pursue justice.”