‘Opening a whole new world’

‘Opening a whole new world’

Academy for Jewish Religion earns accreditation

Rabbi Jill Hammer, center, teaches at AJR’s annual retreat; this photo is from last year, when such gatherings were possible. (ACADEMY FOR JEWISH RELIGION)
Rabbi Jill Hammer, center, teaches at AJR’s annual retreat; this photo is from last year, when such gatherings were possible. (ACADEMY FOR JEWISH RELIGION)

It probably makes sense that out of all the seminaries ordaining rabbis in North America, it’s the Academy for Jewish Religion, the nearly 65-year-old institution housed in the light-filled book-lined former Otis Elevator Company building right off the Hudson River in Yonkers, that is the first Jewish institution to be accredited by the Association of Theological Schools.

The association grants credentials to a range of Christian and now Jewish seminaries across North America; its membership includes a range of schools, both small places unlikely to be familiar to our readers and Harvard University Divinity School, Princeton Theological Seminary, and Yale University Divinity School.

That’s prestigious company, certainly. But why did AJR chose to undertake the arduous years-long process that gaining accreditation demands, and why did ATS decide to grant those credentials?

It is important to understanding the accreditation first to understand AJR’s unusual nature. It’s post denominational, and most of its students are old enough to have thrived in a first career and self-confident enough to undertake the work necessary to succeed in a second one. That means that both its students and its faculty are willing to take the risks necessary to forge new paths.

AJR alumna Cantor Lisa B. Segal of Kolot Chayeinu in Brooklyn, left, talks with Cantor Danielle Bensimhon of Temple Beth David in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida. Cantor Bensimhom is a student in AJR’s cantors-to-rabbis program, working toward rabbinic ordination. (ACADEMY FOR JEWISH RELIGION)

The path to accreditation is always long, but the AJR’s took decades of start-and-stop motion, the school’s CEO and academic dean, Dr. Ora Horn Prouser of Franklin Lakes, said. About 10 years or so ago, the school’s administration started working with New York State’s department of education, which had its own accreditation agency. It was a complex multistep process. “We had to go through several processes — this is when we created our own master’s program, which was authorized by the state — and then the next step was to apply for accreditation,” Dr. Prouser said. “And unfortunately, the same week that we handed in the third draft of our final self-study to the state, it stopped being an accreditation agency and stopped accrediting new schools.” The school had done a huge amount of work, and it led nowhere.

It could have applied to the Middle States Commission on Higher Education, which accredits Yeshiva University, the Jewish Theological Seminary, and Hebrew Union College — Jewish Institute of Religion. Those three institutions all ordain rabbis, giving them Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform smicha, respectively. Each of those institutions is different from the other two, but none of them is like AJR because each grants many degrees, and despite the centrality of the rabbinate to each of them, each also is a dispassionate academic institution in ways that AJR is not. So, Dr. Prouser said, “we could have applied to Middle States, but when you do that your focus has to be on your nonreligious degrees, and ordination is by nature a religious degree.”

So, then, what to do?

“We looked at the Association of Theological Schools, and we realized that it was a better approach for us,” Dr. Prouser said. “It is an organization that cares about us as a seminary. It cares about our religious mission. It cares about the spiritual training of our students. None of that is what a secular accrediting agency would care about. So when we realized that ATS was a better fit for us, we approached them. And given that we had invested so much time and energy in the state application, they streamlined the process for us.” It took only about two and a half years, she said.

The process involved “a self-study of your entire organization,” Dr. Prouser said. “Everything from academic requires, curriculum, faculty, admissions, recruitment, and placement; also it looks at your finances, your facilities, your structures, your board of trustees, your relationships with alumni. It pores into every area of your institution, so you have to do an intense study of yourself. What are you doing right? What can you improve?

“And then there are site visits along the way.” Twice, a board representative spent the day in Yonkers; finally, a four-person, four-day site visit generally leads to a verdict on whether the institution is ready for accreditation, and if it is, then for how long before it has to try for renewal.

That four-day site visit turned out to be a problem. It ran headlong into the coronavirus. “The site visit was scheduled for the third week of March, when everything as closing down,” Dr. Prouser said. First one person begged off, then a second, then a third. “By the time we got to the Wednesday of the week before, they were close to canceling,” Dr. Prouser said. “But we really pushed, and pleaded with them consider a virtual site visit.” It was ATS’s first such online meeting. No one had a blueprint for such a meeting.

That’s where AJS’s unusual structure came in. Because the seminary accepts older students — students, that is, who already have established families, homes, and lives, often outside commuting distance to the school — it already has done a great deal of work online. AJR knows how Zoom and other technologies work. So Dr. Prouser and her colleagues took the schedule they’d already worked up and used the knowledge they’d gained over the last few years to make it work online. “We made a document room, filled with information about the school,” she said. “We scrambled pretty quickly to get everything ready, and it worked. In fact, it was interesting to see how well it work.

“We had mincha with more than 50 people on Zoom during the site visit, and so our visitors were able to get a taste of our mincha.

“It took a lot of willingness on ATS’s part. We were very impressed.”

At the end of the site visit, usually the visitors decide whether to accredit the organization; if the decision is yes, then the visitors decide how much time must pass before the school must apply again. “So the last day of the visit — which is extremely well organized, because ATS has their structure and process, and it really works for them — the head of the site visit and the ATS liaison met with me and gave me the results of their visit.” That decision isn’t final — a committee has to make that determination — but it’s weighty. “We were a little concerned,” Dr. Prouser said. There are times when it is not beneficial to do something first. “But the decision we were given then — and that the board ratified — was for seven years. That’s the maximum time. That was quite significant.”

There are a number of reasons why the Academy for Jewish Religion wanted to be accredited.

On the most basic, practical level, as soon as the federal government approves the school’s new status, its students can get the federal loans to which they previously had not been entitled. “It’s been a hardship for students not to be eligible for these loans, but now they will be,” Dr. Prouser said. “That is part of taking care of our students.”

The self-study and analysis that followed “has helped us to become a better school,” she added. “During that process, you are constantly assessing everything you do, and that is incredibly valuable.”

The Association of Theological Schools also offers its members the opportunity to learn together, about abstract constructs, about such pressing issues as social, racial, and economic justice seen through a faith-based filter — and about practical ways to run schools. Representatives of seminaries can learn about computers and social media and their libraries and their admissions software, as well as a huge number of other issues.

Beyond that, the accreditation gives the school a certain kind of hard-to-define-but-even-harder-to-miss bump in status. It shows that “AJR is a serious academic institution,” Dr. Prouser said. “We have been proud of our academic rigor, but not everyone realizes that. By becoming accredited, we enter a new tier of school in the minds of many people.

“It opens a whole new world, and we’re ready to jump in,” Dr. Prouser said.

There was one Jewish representative among the visitors who decided to accredit AJR. That was Rabbi Dr. David J. Fine of Temple Israel and JCC in Ridgewood. He’s a Conservative rabbi, ordained at the Jewish Theological Seminary; his shul houses and is in some ways intertwined with a Reconstructionist congregation, Congregation Beth Israel, so he knows about post denominationalism; and he earned a doctorate in modern European history at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. He’s formidably qualified to examine a seminary for accreditation; he assumes that it is those credentials that caused ATS to ask him to undertake the task. He’d had no connection with the group before this engagement.

Rabbi Fine made plans to spent Monday through Thursday, that third week in March, in Yonkers, considering whether to accredit AJR. Although Ridgewood is close to Yonkers, ATS asked him to stay in a hotel with the rest of the group. The task demands that kind of close attention.

“But instead, that was when the whole world as we knew it just ended,” Rabbi Fine said. Instead of staying in Yonkers, “that was the week when I had to figure out how to keep a congregation going without anyone going to shul.” So did every other rabbi, and Rabbi Fine also is the president of the North Jersey Board of Rabbis. “It was a crazy time.

“But we all wanted the process to go forward. It had been such a long time, so much time had been invested. We didn’t feel it was fair to make AJR wait until the coronavirus ended.

“To get a sense of a school without being onsite is challenging, but it ended up being very positive for AJR,” Rabbi Fine said. “One of the things that sets it apart from other rabbinical programs is that they serve students from across the country. There isn’t a residency requirement. You don’t have to give them five years of your life. And there is flexibility with the pace of the program.

“A lot of the students will be second-career rabbis, and they can continue working while they are pursing ordination. There are of course many times when everyone comes together on site, but it is part of the regular routine to do courses over Zoom.

“So for me, being on the accreditation commission was bashert. A plan made in heaven. Like every other rabbi on the planet, I had to figure out how to do this, and here I was, accrediting an institution that teaches rabbis over Zoom.

“Sometimes things come together so perfectly!”

He learned the basics about Zoom from watching how AJR did it — how to point the camera, what to wear, where to sit — the general etiquette of this newly necessary but potentially annoying technology. “They had already figured it out,” he said. “They were ahead of the curve.”

AJR has much to be proud of, he said. “The program serves an important niche in the Jewish community, because it gives an avenue for advanced Jewish study for people who are not able to make a residential commitment. And I think that the quality of the students is extraordinary. The school is able to put together a student body of extraordinary talents and backgrounds.

“These are people who already have experience. They are not straight out of college. They have professional experience and life experience. They are more mature and work on a higher level than in more standard rabbinical schools, which are for people who are just starting out.

“It is good to have this place where Jewish learning can prosper, and then its graduates can bring all that learning into the American Jewish community. It is a benefit to us all.”

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