You can tell a lot about a school from its campus.
Take, for example, the Academy for Jewish Religion.
It’s in Yonkers, N.Y., an old city on the Hudson’s east bank — New York State’s fourth largest — just north of the Bronx and just east of Bergen County. Yonkers has gone through many phases, including pervasive and demoralizing urban blight, but now it’s reviving.
The school is housed in the red brick building that produced the first Otis elevators, in 1892. Inside, the space is highly specific, lovely (unless your taste does not run in that direction — if you want modern or minimalist, forget it), all double-height ceilings, huge old windows looking out onto more red brick in the sharp river light, unexpected corners, loft spaces looking down into the maze that is the library.
The building is not easy to find; you enter its address into your GPS and then drive around and around in maddening circles as it continues to direct you into dead ends. It seems that the only way to get there is to give up, call, and ask for help. But once you’ve found it, you realize that it’s actually easy to get to, and you’ll be able to do it on your own from then on.
So, really, if you wanted to put the ideas of engaging and reengaging and redefining and retaining and renovating tradition into bricks and mortar, you couldn’t do any better than the Academy for Jewish Religion’s home.
And if you say that the school is a perfect metaphor for the pluralistic seminary, which trains rabbis and cantors for jobs without tying them to denominations, then you’d also have to say that its executive vice president and academic dean, Dr. Ora Horn Prouser, who comes to the school with a strong denominational background, a willingness to both hold onto it and to see far beyond it, and the creativity that allows her to pursue groundbreaking academic work while running the school, is ideally suited to her job.
Dr. Prouser, who lives in Franklin Lakes, is the daughter, wife, and sister-in-law of New Jersey Conservative rabbis, and earned all her academic degrees, including her doctorate, at the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary. (Her father is William Horn, rabbi emeritus of the Summit Jewish Community Center; her husband, Joseph Prouser, is the rabbi of Temple Emanuel of North Jersey in Franklin Lakes; her brother-in-law, Randall Mark, is the rabbi of Congregation Shomrei Emunah in Wayne, and add for good measure that her sister, Dassy Mark, for decades was the director of United Synagogue Youth’s Hagalil region.)
On her mother’s side, Dr. Prouser is descended from a long line of Orthodox rabbis; her grandfather, Moshe Yaakov Mendelowitz, who studied at the Slobodka yeshiva, moved to Brooklyn, but died young, leaving his family adrift. His brother, Rabbi Sam Mendelowitz, lived in Bergen County; the family mourned the death of his widow, Rhoda Poplack Mendelowitz of Teaneck, a beloved teacher at the Yavneh Academy for many years, just a little more than a year ago.
Moshe Mendelowitz was an innovative businessman; he created a system to ship kosher meat across the country by having local rabbis at various stops meet the train, thus ensuring its continued kashrut. An extant portrait of him shows a handsome man, clean-shaven, fashionably, even nattily dressed.
When his wife, Rachel Mendelowitz, was left a young widow, at times she would turn to the Lubavitcher rebbe for advice. “He was very kind to her,” Dr. Prouser said. “He paid attention to her.” Her mother, Dena Mendelowitz Horn, went to NYU. She was active in the Jewish Cultural Foundation there, a precursor to Hillel, and while she was there she wrote the rebbe a letter about it. He wrote back, a three-page reply, in English, about how “youth have to go out and spread Yiddishkeit,” Dr. Horn said. The letter was framed and hangs in her parents’ house.
William Horn grew up “culturally Jewish,” his daughter said; the family also belonged to the Ocean Parkway Jewish Center. William and Dena met at NYU, and Rachel Mendelowitz decided to check with the rebbe to see if William, who had applied to the Jewish Theological Seminary and planned on becoming a Conservative rabbi, was appropriate for her daughter.
“The rebbe approved of it,” Dr. Prouser said. “He understood who my father was, and that he didn’t belong in a yeshiva. And not only did he approve, he arranged for a rabbi he knew, who was connected to him but working at JTS, to check in on him and see how he was doing.”
Soon after Dena and William Horn married, they moved to Teaneck; almost-Rabbi Horn’s student pulpit was the Ridgefield Park Jewish Center, right over the town line. When their daughter Ora — the second of three children — was about 2, in 1962, the family moved to Summit, to the pulpit that Rabbi Horn held until he retired. “That was so lucky for our family,” Dr. Prouser said. “We were embraced by the community. It was heimische. It was home.” The Horn children went to the local Schechter day school, which her parents helped to found, and which since then has grown and become the Solomon Schechter Day School of Union and Essex. “We got a wonderful education,” Dr. Prouser said. “The community atmosphere was so strong! I still have very close friends from my Schechter years.” Between school, shul, and USY, she and her brother and sister were cocooned in a tight, loving Jewish community. “We were very, very lucky,” she said.
Ora Horn went to the joint program that Columbia University and JTS ran, spent her junior year at Hebrew University, and then went straight to graduate school, again at JTS. After she earned her doctorate, in Bible, she taught there. “I like to say that I went to JTS when I was 17 and left when I was 40,” she said.
She and Joseph Prouser “were college sweethearts — and it worked,” she said. While she was in graduate school, he worked toward ordination. Her dissertation was about “lying and deception in biblical narrative,” she said. “There are so many lies in the Torah — when you start to go through and make a list, you realize that there are almost no biblical characters who didn’t lie or weren’t lied to. There were very few of them who aren’t on either side of a lie.”
“My idea was that in biblical narrative, deception is a legitimate tool that the weak use against the more powerful,” she continued. “Weak, in the context, doesn’t necessarily mean of bad character. It’s about social status.” Women and younger sons — Tamar, Rebecca, and Jacob, for obvious example — provide good examples. “That’s important because Israel always was small,” she said. “It doesn’t matter what historical period you’re looking at — Israel was small. It didn’t have power. And if you add to that the fact that the Torah was canonized either during or not long after the time of Babylonian exile, when the Israelites had no land — you put it together to see that things are not always as they appear.
“The one who appears to be weak can be strong. It couldn’t be accomplished head-on, but through alternative means. It’s a message of hope, and it’s a huge message of the Torah.”
After Ora Horn and Joseph Prouser married, in 1982, they and their three children moved a few times, living most of the time in Newington, Connecticut, and then in Great Neck, on Long Island. Their oldest child, Eitan, is a musician, who lives and works on Long Island. Their middle child, Shira Kravitz, is the support program coordinator for Sharsheret in Teaneck, and her husband, Avi Kravitz, works at the Solomon Schechter Day School of Bergen County in New Milford. Shira and Avi have a baby, Matan. The Prousers’ youngest child, Ayal, is in a master’s program in film studies; he is also a circus coach and performer.
In photographs with their grandson, Ora and Joe Prouser beam; when they talk about him, their joy is apparent and unquenchable.
In 2012, the Prousers moved to Franklin Lakes. Meanwhile, Dr. Prouser began teaching at AJR in 1999, became its dean in 2001, and then added the responsibilities of executive vice president in 2003.
She has continued her academic work as well, focusing on “a combination of Bible and disability studies,” she said. She’d thought a great deal about children with disabilities because it affects so many families; she’d been reading about ADHD “and I went to a lecture, and heard someone talk about Esau, saying that he was impulsive. I leaned over to the guy next to me and said, ‘You know, Esau had ADHD.’ We chuckled, and it was over — and I kept thinking about it, and I realized that many of the biblical characters have special needs.”
Her book, “Esau’s Blessing: How the Bible Embraces Those With Special Needs,” was the result of that ideal. “I wrote it very carefully, based closely on text,” she said. “There is nothing loosey-goosey about it. I look at Esau with AHDH, and also at Moshe and his speech problems. I also look at Yakov. We all know that after he wrestled with the angel, he left the encounter limping, but people forget that he kept on limping. The next chapter is the rape of Dinah.
“So imagine Yakov, who is learning to live with a physical disability. He is scared to take a physical stand about the rape because he really can’t take a stand.” It’s not physically possible.
Dr. Horn also looks at Naomi and Jonah; Naomi suffers from depression, and Jonah from a learning disability that also leads to depression, she said.
She loves the image of God, in Psalm 23, as having a staff and a rod. A rod is a shepherd’s tool, she said, but “a staff is something you lean on. It’s a cane. In Psalm 23, God uses a cane.” That is comforting, she said.
“It doesn’t mean that God always has a disability,” she said. “It is just one metaphor for God.” But it does remind us all that we all, each one of us, is created b’tzelem Elohim — in God’s image — she added.
Moving from the Jewish Theological Seminary to the Academy for Jewish Religion entailed at least a partial paradigm change for her, Dr. Prouser said. “I had been living as a poster child for the Conservative movement my whole life.” Now, she has embraced the academy’s pluralistic worldview, but she has not had to sacrifice any of the way she lives Jewishly, which still is specifically Conservative, in order to accept that paradigm change. That, after all, is the particular genius of pluralism.
“We define pluralism as not just that we accept or tolerate different views, or are happy that we sit around the table with people who live Jewishly in ways that are different or have different views than ours,” she said. “Rather, we cherish these differences. We know that each of us is a better person and a more thoughtful Jew because we are connected to so many people who observe in so many different ways. It was very powerful for me to be here, because when you are in a community with like-minded people you don’t actually have to think so hard about why you do what you do. But when you are in a community full of passionate, committed, sincere people, with full integrity in their Jewish lives, who have such different views than you do, you are really forced — and in a very good way — to ask yourself a lot of questions.
“Even with my strong Jewish background, I felt like I grew as a Jew when I got here,” she said.
“My practice has changed very little, but my thinking has changed. I think now I would call myself a pluralistic Jew with a Conservative practice.”
Another advantage AJR offers its students is its flexibility. “We have many second career students,” Dr. Prouser said. “Our students are so passionate, so dedicated to serving the Jewish people. This isn’t something you do unless you care deeply about being here. And by teaching here, I am able to be with these people all the time.”
Students can take more than the traditional five years to graduate, and many do. Some chose it for that reason, some because “they really believe in pluralism, and they feel that pluralistic training will help them serve the Jewish community, which is becoming increasingly post-denominational and pluralistic,” Dr. Prouser said. “And some of them just walk through the door and fall in love.”
The school has about 50 students in its nominally five-year ordination and master’s degree programs, she said. “They come from such a range of backgrounds! Some come to us with very little Hebrew, and enter our mechina program. Some come to us with a yeshiva background, and some with a lot of Jewish studies in college. Some are Reform, some Reconstructionist, and some Conservative, and a few — although just a few — are Orthodox. And then a whole lot of people say that they don’t really fit into any group.
“We have students who were born Jewish and students who weren’t. They range in age from their 20s to their 70s; we had a student in his 70s who said ‘I have been leading a community for 20 years, and it feels like I have been driving without a license.’ We have students who live nearby, and students who fly in every week.”
How do students afford it? Dr. Prouser pauses and then sighs. “We offer some financial aid, but not enough,” she said. “We would love to make it easier. We understand how hard it is, and how hard people have to work to come here.”
The academics are rigorous but the teaching isn’t always conventional, she said. “Our people know the importance of being creative and flexible. We have taught through arts, through story telling, through visual arts, through writing. And we are very proud that we have taught through circus arts.
“I’m sure that we are the only people in history to have done that,” she said, proudly, and no doubt correctly.
Students do find jobs when they graduate, she added. “Some work in synagogues as rabbis and cantors, some work in educational setting or in chaplaincy. Some people work for themselves,” as freelance teachers, tutors, and life-cycle officiants. “Many of them prefer to work one-on-one with individuals.
“Placement here has always been very personal,” Dr. Prouser explained. “We try to make good shidduchs. We find that people call us and say they want to come to us for placement because we know that we will work with them, and that they like the quality of our students.”
AJR’s students can find jobs in congregations that are not affiliated formally with any of the movements; they also can be placed in congregations that are affiliated but have obtained waivers for those positions.
The Academy for Jewish Religion just celebrated its 60th anniversary. Many people are surprised to learn that it is that old. “For a long time, AJR was a very small institution,” Dr. Prouser said. It started to grow in the 90s, as the Jewish environment changed, and has accelerated that growth somewhat as the world around it continues to change, and pluralism becomes increasingly valued.
Pluralism doesn’t mean a loosening of boundaries, she said. For example, the school, does not accept patrilineal descent, although both the Reform and the Reconstructionist movements do, and it does not accept non-halachic Jews as students. “We studied it,” she said. “It’s one of those issues that often are revisited. It’s a hard one. We respect that people have been living as Jews, and we have helped them get formal conversions.
“We also do not accept rabbinical or cantorial students who are intermarried,” she said. “I am comfortable with that decision. It is the right one for us right now.”
The school also uses that approach when it holds minyans. “When we pray together, we make a covenant as a community to all follow whatever is decided by the prayer leader,” Dr. Prouser wrote in an essay for “Studies in Judaism and Pluralism,” the book that marks the school’s anniversary celebration. The leader decides what kind of service to offer and which of the many siddurim available to use. Each minyan must include a mourner’s kaddish and cannot include anything for which a quorum traditionally is needed should that quorum not be present. “That is not to say that everyone finds every service equally enjoyable or spiritually meaningful,” Dr. Prouser said, but that’s not the point. And at times, when people become exposed to new experiences, even ones they do not like, they learn and grow.
“A lot of people say that pluralism is easy, because everything goes, but that’s not how it works,” she said. “It is so hard! It’s good hard work, but it is hard work. We have learned that there is no one who is entirely pluralistic without any borders ever. We have learned that when you open one border, you move on to another. Every pluralistic community has to make decisions for itself.
AJR students from across Bergen County praise both Dr. Prouser and the school she runs. Each one has a story.
“I was not looking to go to a seminary,” Cantor Lois Kittner of Bogota, who works at Adath Israel, a Conservative shul in Morris Plains, said. Cantor Kittner had been a cabaret singer, “but I didn’t have the Hebrew, and I couldn’t sight sing. I served various congregations as a lay leader. And then I served as a cantor at the Reconstructionist synagogue in Maywood, but I wasn’t ordained, and didn’t want to make believe that I had been.
“And then an article came out in the Jewish Standard by Lois Goldrich, called ‘From Cabaret to Cantor.’” It was about her. That brought her to the attention of cantors, who helped mentor and encourage her. She’d worked in a financial services firm, but lost her job in 2009, as the result of the economic collapse the year before, so she was at loose ends. “My husband, Mason, said, ‘Great! Now you can go to the seminary.’” She was sure that she wasn’t qualified, but her husband, her mentor, Cantor Saul Zim, and other friends talked her into applying “I was so remedial that I didn’t understand how they could even look at me,” she said. But of course they did. In fact, they accepted her.
“For the first two years, my dance was I would say ‘No, no, no,’ and Ora would say ‘Of course, of course, of course.’ I would say I can’t get through it, and Ora would say ‘Let’s just give it a try.’
“She treats each of us so individually! She could see that I really wanted to learn, but I didn’t have enough belief in myself, and there are good reasons for that. Let’s just say that I was over 27” — in fact she was old enough to have grown children — “but it was about letting me have my fears and letting me work through them.
“Ora was there for me, and she always will be. She is my grounding. And I love her,” Cantor Kittner said.
Rabbi Ziona Zelazo of Franklin Lakes was a cultural anthropologist who taught at Montclair State University as an adjunct professor for 14 years before she decided to go to AJR. “It was the only seminary that was pluralist and nondenominational,” she said; she didn’t belong to any movement, so that appealed to her. “It allows you freedom to attend, to listen, to learn from everybody,” she said. “There is such diversity in our Jewish community, and I always feel that it is wrong to go just one way, because then I think that I am disrespecting the other ways.”
Rabbi Zelazo now works as a hospital chaplain, and once a month she leads meditative Shabbat services at Temple Beth Rishon in Wyckoff. She also performs life-cycle events.
She glows when she’s asked to talk about Dr. Prouser. “There are no words that can describe the amazingness of this woman,” she said. “She is, first of all, a delightful person to be around, always smiling, always making everyone feel loved and embraced. And she is so smart! And her teaching skills are exemplary. I could never have enough of her perspective on the Torah; she is after all a biblical scholar. And on top of it she runs the school; she takes care of all of it, administrative, financial, and all the relationships. She is the school.”
Rabbi Beth Kramer-Maser of New City, N.Y., was ordained in 2016. She’s the director of congregational learning at Temple Beth El, the Reform synagogue in Closter. “Ora is the heartbeat of AJR,” she said. “She is at the epicenter of all that is amazing there. She is a brilliant scholar, and she couples that with the dignity and compassion and wisdom of a leader. She is brilliant but creative; she is serious but she knows how to laugh. She just got the whole package, along with a tireless work ethic, and she cares so deeply about Jewish pluralism, which is the great hallmark of the AJR.
“It’s the idea that as a Jewish people, we are so much stronger when we unify, even with our difference,” Rabbi Kramer-Maser said.
Lois Ruderman of Woodland Park will be a rabbi in 80-some-odd days, she said, but who’s counting? “I went to AJR because I didn’t really fit into the movement schools,” she said. The rabbinate is a second career for her; she trained and worked as a speech therapist before she became a full-time parent. “When the youngest was getting very independent, I knew that I had to do something else, but I didn’t make the effort until it was staring me in the face,” she said,. “Someone took me to a synagogue in Newark. The rabbi there had studied at AJR while he worked as a lawyer. I didn’t know you could do that.”
(The rabbi was Simon Rosenbach, who heads Congregation Ahavas Sholom in Newark and is a former assistant prosecutor in Middlesex County. He is another AJR success story.)
Ms. Ruderman works at Temple Beth Rishon in Wyckoff, where she is the rabbinic intern.
As for Dr. Prouser, “she is kind and patient and understanding and accepting,” Ms. Ruderman said. “She is also visionary. She wants to move this little school to bigger and better, to raise its profile, and to support us, so that we can be the best rabbis and cantors we can be. We all feel very supported and loved by her.”
It is astonishing to note how often people use the word “love” when they talk about Dr. Prouser. It is easy to understand why, though, when you see her in the school that was not new when she took it over but she has helped to grow. The space glows with light from outside; it’s also not at all hard to see the light from within.