Ziegler-Schechter split highlights Conservative divisions

Ziegler-Schechter split highlights Conservative divisions

Caption: Rabbi Bradley Artson said the Ziegler School had pedagogical differences with its former Israel partner, Machon Schechter. American Jewish University

NEW YORK ““ In a further sign that the American and international wings of the Conservative movement are moving in different ideological directions, a Los Angeles rabbinical seminary has ended its longstanding residency program with Machon Schechter in Jerusalem, the only institution that ordains Conservative rabbis in Israel.

Beginning this fall, third-year students at the Ziegler School ofRabbinic Studies will spend their Israel year at the ConservativeYeshiva, a co-educational institute for Diaspora Jews housed at theFuchsberg Center of the United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism, themovement’s North American synagogue umbrella. The change was announcedlast week in a memo to the United Synagogue’s staff and board members.

“The Ziegler School and the Conservative Yeshiva share a commonpedagogical philosophy – integrating academic rigor, emotionalengagement, and spiritual yearning,” Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson,Ziegler’s dean, said in a statement appended to the memo.

Both American Conservative seminaries – Ziegler and the JewishTheological Seminary in New York – are known to have ideologicaldifferences with Schechter’s rabbinical school, whose dean, Rabbi EinatRamon, has been an outspoken critic of the movement’s liberalizingattitude toward gays and lesbians.

Ramon has declined to follow the lead of the American schools, both ofwhich changed their policies to admit openly gay and lesbian studentsfollowing a decision by the movement’s Jewish law authorities in late2006 paving the way for such a move. Seminario Rabinico Latinoamericano,the movement’s seminary in Argentina, also declined to change its policies.

Artson declined to comment beyond his statement in the United Synagoguememo on the reasons for the change. But in an interview with JTA lastyear, he responded to reports that students at Ziegler, the firstConservative seminary to adjust its admissions policy, wereuncomfortable with the prospect of studying at Schechter.

“I’ve already launched conversations with Machon Schechter about theneed to attend to there being real pluralism and that our students feeltruly welcome,” Artson told JTA. “We need to see significant progress onthose issues. What I’ve discussed with Schechter is that our studentshave to not be tolerated guests. They need to feel a rapport. They needto feel that they are fully welcome.”

Rabbi David Golinkin, Schechter’s president, said the school hadattempted to make adjustments to its courses in response to what hedescribed as Ziegler’s “unique approach” to training rabbis, but thatultimately those efforts came to naught.

“We’ve been told repeatedly by the people at Ziegler that this is notabout the gay issue,” Golinkin told JTA. “We take them at their word.”

Others in the movement are less convinced. They point to a controversythat arose just over a year ago, when visiting American students atSchechter organized a ceremony to mark the one-year anniversary of thedecision to permit gay ordination, but then decided to move the eventoff campus. The spat crystallized the discomfort of many Ziegler and JTSstudents, gay and straight, at the prospect of spending a year atSchechter, which is required under the present system.

They also point to an article Artson penned in the current issue ofVoices of Conservative/Masorti Judaism in which he asserted that”halachic pluralism” – the idea that conflicting approaches to Jewishlaw can coexist – “precludes the option of continuing to postpone theday when all of our brothers and sisters, regardless of theirorientation, are welcomed fully as part of the rich fabric of Jewishculture and Jewish life.”

The American and international arms of the Conservative movement havedrifted apart gradually on a number of hot-button questions in recentyears, including the status of non-egalitarian congregations. Last year,three Toronto-area synagogues – none of which fully embracesegalitarian worship – cited a number of factors in explaining theirdecision to break off from the United Synagogue, including financialconcerns and “philosophical differences” they felt were marginalizingthe more traditional-leaning Canadian congregations.

Beyond their varying ideological approaches are what insiders see asdiffering styles with respect to rabbinic training. Ziegler is seen ashaving embraced a wider and more holistic approach to rabbinicaleducation while JTS, which is in the process of a major overhaul of itsrabbinical curriculum, is believed to be heading in a similar direction.

At Schechter, sources say, the educational approach remains more firmlyin the academically oriented mold once exemplified by JTS. Schechter isalso said to be preoccupied with asserting itself in the Israelireligious world and with holding the line against the liberalizingtendencies of the Americans.

“People at Schechter feel that the Conservative movement has taken awrong turn, that the Conservative movement in America has made a movetoward being indistinguishable from the Reform and theReconstructionist, from the other liberal movements,” said oneConservative rabbi who favors gay ordination. “They view themselves asthe last anchor of true Conservative Judaism and they will not be swayed.”

Golinkin denied both assertions.

“I don’t take halachic positions in order to hold lines,” he said.

Officials at Schechter and JTS, the movement’s flagship institution,have been in discussions over a number issues raised by their differingadmissions policies as well as the seminary’s new curriculum.

Neither Golinkin nor Rabbi Danny Nevins, the recently installed dean ofthe JTS rabbinical school, would comment on the content of thosediscussions.

Nevins, however, did tell JTA that while the seminary is committed to”cooperation” with Schechter, “we will also be expanding ourpartnership” with the Israeli branch of the Conservative synagoguemovement, known as Masorti, “as well as with other Israeli organizations.”


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