Area rabbis are hopeful
Local Conservative rabbis are singing the praises of Stanford University Professor Arnold Eisen, chancellor-elect of the movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary, who was named to the position in April. While Eisen will formally assume the chancellorship in July ‘007, he has promised to lay the groundwork for his chancellorship during this academic year, which begins next week.
As a group, Conservative rabbis, including local religious leaders, have expressed surprise that a non-rabbi was selected to head the institution that trains the spiritual leaders of the movement. Nevertheless, impressed by his academic credentials and what they acknowledge to be his firm grounding in the principles of Conservative Judaism, local rabbis said they are hopeful that Eisen will succeed.
The new chancellor faces a daunting task, assuming leadership of the movement at a time when it is suffering declining membership, internal conflict over the role of gays and lesbians, and a severe identity crisis. (See page 8.) All agree that Eisen must find a way to help guide Conservative Judaism through this minefield.
Rabbi Joshua Finkelstein, religious leader of Temple Emanuel of North Jersey in Franklin Lakes, is uniquely placed to comment on the role of seminary chancellor. His grandfather, Rabbi Louis Finkelstein, headed JTS from 1951 to 197′. Finkelstein said that while he was surprised that JTS did not select a rabbi to head the institution, "as a lay leader, Prof. Eisen [has] had a-different perspective of the strengths and weaknesses of-the Conservative-movement.-This experience offers him and our movement a unique opportunity."
Rachel Kahn-Troster, immediate past president of the JTS Rabbinical School Student Organization, told the Standard that Eisen "wants to hear from students." Kahn-Troster whose parents, Elaine Kahn and Rabbi Lawrence Troster, live in Teaneck said she appreciates the way Eisen has been reaching out to rabbinical students. "He has shown an energy and willingness to engage" the students, she said, and their reaction, in turn, has been positive. Students "want to know more about the specifics of his vision," she added, pointing out that how he handles the replacement of longtime dean Rabbi William Lebeau, who is retiring in July ‘007, will be his first real challenge. "This will be his first opportunity to put his mark on the seminary," she said. Kahn-Troster said that while the student body is curious to see who will be named to succeed Lebeau, she believes Eisen "understands the challenges facing Conservative rabbis caught between the intellectual and spiritual needs of the movement."
It will also be interesting to see how Eisen, as a non-rabbi, will deal with the question, "What does it mean to be a mara d’atra [religious decisor]?" she said, suggesting that some issues might require "movement-wide" decisions.
Rabbi Randall Mark of Shomrei Torah in Wayne described the selection of Eisen as "both a positive and an interesting choice." The search committee was thinking "out of the box," he said, adding that he’s "optimistic." While Eisen’s not being a rabbi "has implications in terms of his ability to influence the Rabbinical Assembly," said Mark, it may not affect his ability to lead and influence the seminary as an institution.
The chancellor "should not be viewed as the titular head of the movement," said Mark. "His primary role is to run the seminary." While, in the past, many in the movement have viewed the chancellor as the unofficial head of the movement, he said, it’s unlikely they’ll turn to Eisen in the same way.
Mark believes it’s important that the chancellor communicate his views, since "leadership is about providing direction."
"The movement is in flux, in transition," he said. "In the next year or so, there will be a significant staking out of position and setting of boundaries."
Rabbi Ben Shull of Temple Emanuel of the Pascack Valley in Woodcliff Lake said he has heard only glowing things about Eisen. He added, "We need a communicator someone who can speak for the Conservative movement. A non-rabbi can do that."
Shull said he appreciates Eisen’s "deep connection to the seminary" and noted that he has two things in his favor: "innovation and dynamism."
"Not being a rabbi is not necessarily a negative," said Shull. "We need someone creative who can articulate a compelling vision for the future of the Conservative movement."
Shull said he grew up "in a strong and vibrant Conservative Jewish community in Philadelphia," but today "the movement doesn’t consistently offer a compelling vision of Jewish life." According to Shull, Conservative Jews need to ask, "How can we find those elements of the movement that will motivate both the leadership and the laity?"
"Most important," said Shull, "he needs to be an articulate spokesman and have an inspirational voice. If he can inspire us with a particular vision that the movement can use to reach American Jews," then he will have succeeded.
Rabbi Arthur Weiner of the JCC of Paramus said he has some concerns about Eisen’s not being a rabbi. But while "he would have preferred a rabbi-scholar, only time will tell how he is able to lead."
Since the head of the seminary has generally been considered the head of the movement, said Weiner, he has "some reservations, especially at this challenging time in the life of the Conservative movement. Suggesting that the decisions needing to be made at this time are "every bit as challenging and momentous" as those facing the movement during its discussions on women in the 1980s, Weiner said that if Eisen were both an academic and a rabbi, "it could have added some weight to the decisions and helped with the healing in [their] aftermath."
Eisen is "filling big shoes," said Weiner. "Chancellor Schorsch has done a magnificent job and has been a tremendous leader, scholar, and visionary." Weiner said he thinks the seminary is a stronger institution now than when he graduated in 1989. "[Eisen] will have to find his own way," said Weiner, "and Schorsch has set the bar very high." Still, he added, "As chancellor, he deserves our complete respect and support, and I wish him every success. His tone and decisions will have a major impact on the movement."