JTS Chancellor speaks at Torah Fund Dinner


There are not many things in the Jewish world right now that frighten the new chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) as much as the gap between American Jews and Israeli Jews.

“It scares me to death,” Chancellor Dr. Arnold Eisen said. “It does not bode well for the Jewish future. The most important responsibility I have, that any Jewish leader has, is to bring American Jews closer to Israeli Jews.”

Beth Shalom Cemetery ad

Eisen was welcomed as the seventh chancellor of the JTS at the Torah Fund Dinner presented by the Sisterhoods of three Conservative St. Louis congregations: Congregation B’nai Amoona, Brith Sholom Kneseth Israel and Shaare Zedek. Sisterhood presidents Marilyn Dien (BSKI), Lisa Gellman and Cindy Ginsburg (Shaare Zedek) and Amy Wallerstien (B’nai Amoona) helped plan the annual event which raised just under $22,000. The theme of the evening was “Kol Ishah: A Woman’s Voice,” to celebrate the 20th year of investiture of women cantors at the JTS.

“The decision to allow women cantors directly impacted the St. Louis Jewish community,” Torah Fund chairperson Leslie Becker said. “We have two women cantors in our (Conservative synagogue) community.”

Hazzan Joanna Dulkin of Shaare Zedek and Cantor Sharon Nathanson of B’nai Amoona gave a musical presentation accompanied by Fred Blumenthal of Brith Sholom Kneseth Israel as part of the evening’s program. College student Jacob Albert played percussion when the duo performed Yigdal.

“Where would we be in America today without the contributions of women clergy and yet 30 to 40 years ago who would have imagined they would exist?” Eisen said. “They bring with them a wealth of experience, the music, the words, that American Jews had been denied.”

Eisen believes promoting creativity and change is essential for the preservation and enlivening of tradition. He is a scholar of modern Judaism with a specialty in American Judaism. He has written many publications looking at issues affecting the American Jewish community.

“Dr. Eisen is not a person who is separated from the world,” Rabbi Carnie Shalom Rose said. “He spends his time traveling inspiring the Jewish community and revitalizing our movement.”

Rumors suggesting Conservative Judaism is declining are frustrating to Eisen. He does acknowledge the national numbers are down compared to 20 years ago. Rather than look at the quantity, he encouraged everyone to look at the quality of the hundreds of Conservative Jewish institutions which are thriving today.

“Look at the quality of our camps, day schools, congregational schools, synagogues, women’s leagues, men’s clubs,” Eisen said. “Look at the quality of knowledge and commitment of our clergy, staff and lay people and you will see the notions of decline and failure are farfetched.”

Yet there is work to be done, said Eisen. Some of the changes will be taking place at the rabbinical school. Rabbis around the country told Eisen they didn’t think there was a great fit between what they had been taught at JTS and what they needed to know out in the field to make their synagogues better. While some things can only be learned on the job, some things should be taught at the school, said the rabbis.

The school is creating a new curriculum and requirements to address those gaps. There will be new pastoral skills requirements, classes in the sociology of American Judaism and how the Jewish community works, courses in management and leadership skills including how to read contracts and budgets and lessons in how to be tactful.

“Currently our students are not required to take classes about other religions,” Eisen said. “It is imperative in our world today for our clergy to understand other faith groups. We will be including classes on Christianity and Islam in the new curriculum.”

Another threat to Judaism is “intolerance from within” said Eisen.

“We could use more pluralism and tolerance among Jews,” Eisen said. “We Jews are very good at demanding tolerance of the outside world but we are not very good at showing it to one another.”

In his book The Jew Within: Self, Family and Community in America Jews were asked what they most disliked about other Jews.

“They said they disliked other Jews telling them they were not good enough Jews because they were not Jews just like them,” Eisen said. “This is our sickness, we could use a greater amount of tolerance.”

Eisen also referred to a recent New York Times article about how the Orthodox in Israel make it difficult for people to be counted as Jews in Israel if they have been converted by Reform and Conservative rabbis in America. There are also difficulties for couples who have been married by Conservative and even some Orthodox rabbis in the United States who are not on the approved list of Orthodox rabbis in Israel.

“It’s a disgrace and it’s dividing the Jewish people,” Eisen said. “We need to work on mutual respect among Jews.”

One of the new problems for American Jewry, Eisen said, is due to the fact that this is the first generation of Jews finding all doors open to them. Eisen recalled being a teenager in Philadelphia where some golf clubs were still not open to Jews, certain companies would not hire Jews and some universities had quotas limiting the amount of Jewish students. He saw old ads in newspapers which stated “Jews and Catholics need not apply” when he was doing research as a graduate student.

“Seeing those ads for myself makes me really appreciate just how radically different the present moment is,” Eisen said. “It is an amazing privilege and blessing and carries incredible responsibilities with it. We need to deal with the fact that a large number of Jews are going to go through those doors for the opportunities of the outside world and not look back.”

It is crucial to find a way to reach those Jews in order to stay together as a community, preserve the Jewish people and keep the tradition alive, said Eisen. Jewish education is harder today than generations before when Jews used to soak up Judaism just through living in Jewish neighborhoods, going to Jewish schools and having Jewish friends. Those things which were always taken for granted are up for grabs, said Eisen.

“Everything is a choice — Jews can opt in or out of the tradition very easily,” Eisen said. “Because of this we are the first generation to have problems with Jewish education, Jewish leadership and challenges we never faced as a Jewish people before. The question is what to do in facing up to challenges.”

The need to reach children, teenagers and young adults is very important, according to Eisen. He said many young people in the United States never experienced a vibrant synagogue service and most do not have a good experience in Hebrew school. There is a need to bring up the standards of Jewish day schools and synagogue schools. It is especially important to find teachers with a love of the tradition who communicate that love as much as the knowledge, he said.

“We should be able to feel confident if we have filled our children with the love of the tradition and the love of the community because of experiences of camp and school and synagogue where they really feel the togetherness of Jewish community,” Eisen said. “It should take hold in them and it should work to make them go out and find the Jewish community they need and the Jewish learning they need. I am an optimist. I believe if we do our job right, the next generation will respond.”